Thursday, November 18, 2004

Creatio ex Deo and Pantheism

CAUTION: You are about to enter a hard-core metaphysics zone. Thinking hats required. Long post up ahead. Skimmers are advised to set scrolling to warp speed.

Prefatory Note: I have learned much about pantheism from the articles and correspondence of Robert Oakes, who is retired from teaching, but not from philosophy. Bob, however, displays dangerous neo-Luddite tendencies which make it difficult for me to coax him out into the bracing crosscurrents of the blogosphere. He is still stuck at the e-mail stage: no web presence, no articles on-line, let alone a weblog. But I’ll try to get him to join our discussions, for his good as much as for ours.

The following post draws mainly upon Robert Oakes, "Does Traditional Theism Entail Pantheism?" American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 1983), pp. 105-112. Reprinted in Tom Morris, ed. The Concept of God (Oxford U. Press, 1987).

One question prompted by Anthony Flood’s critique of my post on essence/existence composition is this: Does my construal of creatio ex nihilo in terms of creatio ex Deo commit me to pantheism? If so, how does that comport with my avowed onto-theological personalism?

The logically first question concerns just what pantheism is and is not. I’ll begin with what it is not.

A. Pantheism worth discussing is not the view that God (G) is identical to the physical universe (U). For that would amount to saying that God does not exist. Whether or not God exists, the divine nature excludes the possibility of God’s being a system of physical objects. The reduction of G to U thus amounts to the elimination of G. Therefore, the use of ‘God’ to refer to U is simply an egregious misuse of the term ‘God,’ a misuse on a par with Tillich’s misuse of ‘God’ to refer to one’s ultimate concern.

B. What of the opposite reduction of U to G? This is also a type of pantheism not worth discussing: it implies that God exists but the physical universe does not. For it is self-evident that the physical universe cannot exist unless it is in some sense distinct from G. After all, G is immutable whereas U is mutable; hence, by what McTaggart calls the Discernibility of the Diverse (the logical contrapositive of the Indiscernibility of Identicals), U cannot be identical to G if both exist.

C. If pantheism is to be worth discussing, it must somehow allow for a difference of some kind between God and the cosmos. It must steer a middle course between a strict identity of G and U and a type of difference that would render them ‘indifferent’ to each other, i.e., a type of radical difference that would allow the possibility of U existing without G existing. A viable pantheism must therefore avoid three positions: (1) God is world-identical; (2) The world is God-identical; (3) God and the world are externally related in the sense that either could exist without the other.

One way to satisfy these requirements is by saying, Spinozistically, that created entities are modes of God, or as Oakes says, "aspects or modifications" of God. (p. 106 et passim) For if x is a mode (aspect, modification) of y, then x is not identical to y, y is not identical to x, and x and y are not merely externally related.

It is important to realize that classical theism must also satisfy the requirements, (1)-(3). In particular, classical theism must deny that U can exist without G. For it is a central tenet of classical theism that God is not merely a cause of the inception of the universe, but a cause of its continuance as well. God is not merely a deistic 'starter-upper,' but a moment by moment conserver. How exactly creatio originans and creatio continuans fit together involves problems some of which I discuss here. But there can be no doubt that for classical theism as it is found in Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley and others, creation in the full sense involves both notions.

Now given the fact just mentioned, how are we to distinguish classical theism (CT) from pantheism in the (C)-sense, the only sense in play here? Does (CT) perhaps entail pantheism? (To say that p entails q is to say that, necessarily, if p is true, then q is true. Equivalently, it is to say that it is impossible that p be true, and q false.)

You will notice that the doctrine of conservation ‘shortens’ the ‘ontological distance’ between creator and creatures. It implies that at each moment divine activity is required to keep the creature from lapsing into nonbeing. The point is not merely that God as a contingent matter of fact conserves creatures moment by moment, but that creatures are necessarily such that they are conserved moment by moment by divine activity. This suggests that the very being of creatures is their being-conserved moment by moment, which in turn gives rise to the following worry: How then can creatures retain any ontological independence?

Drawing on Oakes, the following Argument from Conservation can be mounted for the thesis that classical theism entails pantheism (but of course not pantheism in the absurd (A) or (B) senses). (The argument is in Oakes, but the reconstruction is mine.)

1. Every contingent being is necessarily such that it is existentially dependent on God at each moment of its existence.

2. If anything X is necessarily such that it is dependent on something Y at each moment of its existence, then X is a mode (aspect, modification) of Y.


3. Every contingent being is a mode (aspect, modification) of God, which amounts to pantheism.

The validity (formal correctness) of this argument is not in question, and premise (1) merely states the conservation doctrine, an essential subdoctrine of classical theism. So the soundness of the argument rides on premise (2).

Premise (2) fits some cases very well. A wrinkle in a carpet satisfies both the antecedent and the consequent of (2). Same holds for the dance and the dancer. Suppose Little Eva is doing the Locomotion ("C’mon baby, do the Loco-mo-shun . . ..) There is the dance-type and its various actual and possible tokens. Little Eva’s gyrations at time t constitute one of these tokens such that the token in question could not possibly exist except as an aspect or modification of Little Eva at t. Similarly for felt pleasures and felt pains. The esse of a pain just is its percipi: a pain cannot exist except as perceived. Pains and the like are therefore plausibly construed as aspects or modifications of perceivers. Finally, it is plausibly maintained that a particular thinking, believing, imagining, is an aspect or modification of a thinker or a believer or an imaginer.

But now consider an object imagined as opposed to the act of imagining it. I mean an object that does not exist apart from its being imagined, a purely intentional object. (A rich vein of gold at the base of Weaver’s Needle; a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater.) Said object does not exist on its own, but only as the accusative of an act (or acts) of imagining. Now while it makes sense to say that the act (the occurrent episode) of imagining is an aspect or modification of an imaginer, it does not make much sense to say this of the intentional object (the accusative) of the act. Indeed, we cannot even say that the intentional object is an aspect or modification of the act trained upon it. Why not?

Note that if x is an aspect or modification of y, then x cannot exist without y, but y can exist without x. (A carpet wrinkle cannot exist without the carpet of which it is the wrinkle, but the carpet can surely exist without that, or any, wrinkle.) By contrast, if x is the intentional object of act y, then x cannot exist without y, AND y cannot exist without x. An imagining cannot exist except as the imagining of a definite object, and that object, qua intentional object, cannot exist without the act. I conclude from this difference that the intentional object cannot be an aspect or modification of the act. It is not a property of the act, but its object or intentum. A fortiori, it cannot be an aspect or modification of the subject of the act, the imaginer in the case of an act of imagining.

We therefore have a class of counterexamples to premise (2) above. The Argument from Conservation therefore fails, and classical theism does not collapse into pantheism – or at least not for the reason that Oakes provided in the article under discussion.

So far, then, I cannot, pace Flood, see that I am committed to pantheism in any of the three senses lately distinguished.