In defense of religion, chapter V

In this chapter, we establish the existence of God through a cosmological argument.  This chapter won’t make any sense if you haven’t read the last two.

In defense of religion V:  individuality and existence of God and creatures

There’s a serious objection that could be made against the idea of unqualified being.  In the last chapter, when we talked about limits or qualifications to existence, they seemed to serve an entirely negative function—they keep a being from being everywhere, from knowing everything, or from having any of God’s other perfections.  However, in actual, concrete finite beings, limits don’t seem to be entirely negative.  In every finite being, one can identify an active element and a passive element.  The active element is the element of positive existence, the quality we’ve described above.  The passive element is the subject that receives this actuality, that in which the element of actuality is instantiated.  The passive element (sometimes called “potency”, but I will continue to use the term “subject”) limits the act to itself, but in doings so it also individualizes the act.  It makes the finite being to be a concrete individual.  Consider a human being, like myself.  My passive elements are quite important to my existence.  My human nature is a sort of subject of my act of existence; this nature limits my existence, and in doing so makes it to be existence of a particular kind.  Human nature is itself a form, a pattern, which can only have concrete existence if it’s instantiated in a subject, namely the matter in my body.  My life pattern is limited to my matter; the passive element provided by my matter creates a “gap” between human nature in general and my concrete life form, so that I never exemplify the full possibilities of human nature.  On the other hand, without my matter, the subject, my human nature would just be an abstraction with no concrete existence.  The passive, limiting element is necessary to make me a real individual.

Now if individuality is necessary to be a real, concrete being, and a limiting, passive element is needed to make a thing individual, than it would seem that God can’t really exist.  We’ve been too greedy with the demand for unlimited actuality, and we’ve ended up with something that can’t be anything but an abstraction.  Remember, though, our method for establishing divine attributes.  For each quality in finite beings, we separate the positive and the negative elements, and attribute only the former to God.  The first necessary condition for the coherence of God is that the two elements can logically be separated.  The second is that purely positive elements don’t clash.  Can we perform this separation operation for this case?  The two functions of the passive element in finite beings are individuation and limitation.  The first, which denotes concrete rather than abstract existence, is positive, so we must attribute it to God.  The second function is negative, and so does not belong to God.  Thus God must be individual without having a passive element; there is no subject logically distinct from God’s unqualified actuality that receives and limits this actuality.  Unqualified being is individual on its own.  An immediate consequence is that there can only be one God.  This is a remarkable conclusion.  It’s not just that two Gods couldn’t coexist because the universe isn’t big enough for two omnipotent beings; it’s that the divine nature itself specifies one individual.  It’s as if you set out to describe human nature in general, and your description ended up singling out your friend Bill who lives next door as the Unique Man.  In God, there is no distinction between act and subject, between nature and individual.

Here’s a simpler way to see that there could only be one God.  Suppose there were three possible Gods; call them “Zeus”, “Apollo”, and “Demeter”.  What could make them different?  It would have to be something positive—differing personality traits for each God—or something negative—limitation into different subjects, e.g. Zeus is made out of this matter here, while Apollo is made out of that matter there.  It can’t be something positive, because each unqualified being would have to have every positive quality.  It can’t be something negative either, since unqualified beings can’t have limitations.  Therefore, there can be nothing to distinguish between two or more Gods.

It turns out that the number of finite beings is actually more problematic than the number of Gods.  Finite beings have a passive element, so the same pattern can be instantiated multiple times.  Why, then, should there be any particular number of any given type of being?  Why are there six billion humans but zero unicorns?  For that matter, how do I know an infinite number of unicorns won’t pop into existence in five minutes and fill up the whole universe?  Unlike God, finite beings seem to be dangerously underdetermined.

As a matter of fact, we must be pretty sure that an infinite number of unicorns aren’t going to pop into existence.  If things like that could happen, the universe would be completely unintelligible.  It would not evolve according to regular laws, as it seems to.  How do we explain this?  First, let me note two explanations that won’t do.  First, we can’t explain why things don’t pop into existence by invoking a law of physics:  conservation of mass or energy, symmetries in a Lagrangian, a divergence-free stress-energy tensor, etc.  These are just mathematical restatements of the fact that things don’t just pop into existence.  Second, we can’t get away with saying that things can pop into existence, but that they probability for its occurrence is low (like quantum tunneling across a high energy barrier), so that it happens sufficiently rarely that it is unnoticed.  Suppose this were true, and a certain non-existent object had a certain low probability of popping into existence.  I could always imagine another object, no more nonexistent than the first, with all of the same properties but a very high probability of popping.  All nonexistent beings are equally nonexistent, so this second kind of object is as valid as the first.  If we say that the probability of popping is set by some other object that actually does exist, than that object would be the cause of the other thing’s coming into being.  We would have a case of one being acting to cause another, something that doesn’t raise any problems for the intelligibility of the universe.  It seems that this type of coming into existence, that of being caused by something that existed already, is the only way that finite beings can come to exist.

One might object that things popping into existence uncaused must be possible, because physicists sometimes assert that such things happen:  virtual particle-antiparticle pairs pop into and out of existence out of nothing, and the universe itself is said to have popped into existence during the big bang.  No doubt physicists do make such claims in popular expositions of their work, but the real question is whether this is really the most sensible interpretation of quantum field theory and quantum cosmology.  In fact, such language is so sloppy that it can lead physicists to make absurd claims.  I once attended a colloquium at which a string theorist boasted that it had been proven that the universe came into existence out of nothing, but that “nothing” has a structure which they’re still working out.  Now, of course, if something has a structure, one with causal effects on the actual universe, it’s most certainly not “nothing”.  Similarly, idea that anything can pop into existence, subject only to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is not the most sensible interpretation of quantum field theory.  In defense of this claim, I will just point out 1) Feynman diagrams just represent terms in a series expansion (e.g. of a path integral)—there’s no reason to think the virtual-particle lines in them represent real entities; 2) in any case, vacuum polarization diagrams involve a particle splitting into a pair, not a pair appearing out of nowhere; 3) things like the Casimir effect and Hawking radiation can be understood without invoking creation out of nothing; 4) a more natural understanding of the theory would regard all of these particles as excitations of some pre-existing medium which provides the needed ontological ground and cause.  (c.f. the only quantum field theory we really understand, namely the theory of phonons in solids.)  Even without any knowledge of quantum field theory, one should be able to see something wrong in all this talk about particles popping into existence out of nothing.  If it were, why is it always standard-model particles that pop into existence?  Why not any other kind of particle that one could imagine?

So, finite beings have a passive element which adds an element of indeterminacy to them.  Some of their qualities, including their fact of existing itself, are not self-determined but have to be set from outside.  Now, how can it be that my existence is determined by something outside myself?  Surely, it’s because this “something” is giving me my existence—otherwise it couldn’t be the determining factor.  To insure the intelligibility of the universe, we assert that limited being is received being.  God is the only being who could be entirely self-determined.  He alone has no element of indeterminacy that has to be fixed from outside.

Could it be that God doesn’t exist, and finite beings are all that there is?  Can a collection of entities, each of which receives its existence from outside itself, exist without a self-sufficient being (God) to cause them to exist?  There are only two ways one might try to set up such a system.  First, we could imagine a cycle.  A receives being from B, who receives it from C, who receives it from A (schematically:  A<– B<–C<–A).  Could this happen?  No.  If it could, A+B+C systems could randomly pop into existence.  A receiving being B is very different from A depending on B or B being be a necessary condition for A.  Being dependent and being a necessary condition can be mutual; giving and receiving being cannot be, because a received being has nothing that its cause doesn’t give it.  Therefore, this cycle demands that A get its actuality ultimately from itself, which we’ve already said can’t happen for a finite being.  Nor would it help to have A receive being from both B and C, or any other combination of dependencies.  The second possibility would be to extend the series out to infinity:  A<–B<–C<–D<–E<–…  Could this work?  No.  An infinite series of possible beings is not one step closer to existence without an actual being to actualize the whole series.  The above would allow infinitely large systems to pop into existence, which is hardly an improvement.  Therefore, a collection of beings with received existence cannot exist unless God creates it.  Since finite beings do exist, God necessarily exists also.

The existence of a creator God vindicates a large part of most religions.  God is the sacred something that religious people worship.  He is indeed as awesome and powerful as one could imagine, infinitely more so, in fact.  He is truly the source of all being, the source of the order of the cosmos, and the ultimate truth about the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: