Thursday, November 11, 2004

Creation: Ex Nihilo or Ex Deo? Preliminary Response to Flood

Classical theists hold that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. This phrase of course carries a privative, not a positive, sense: it means not out of something as opposed to out of something called ‘nothing.’ This much is crystal clear. Less clear is how creation ex nihilo (CEN), comports, if it does comport, with the following principle:

ENN: Ex nihilo nihit fit. Nothing comes from nothing.

The latter principle seems intuitively obvious. It is not a truth of logic -- since its negation is not self-contradictory -- but it does appear to be a truth of metaphysics, indeed, a necessary truth of metaphysics. But if (ENN) is true, how can (CEN) be true? How can God create out of nothing if nothing can come from nothing?

It would be unavailing to say that God, being omnipotent, can do anything, including making something come out of nothing. For omnipotence, rightly understood, does not imply that God can do anything, but that God can do anything that any possible agent could possibly do. But there are limits on what is possible. For one thing, logic limits possibility, and so limits divine power: not even God can make a contradiction true. There are also extra-logical limits on divine power: God cannot restore a virgin. There are past events which possess a necessitas per accidens that puts them beyond the reach of the divine will. Nor can God violate (ENN), given that it is necessarily true. God is subject to necessary truths. Some may see a problem with that, but I don’t. Necessary truths, like all truths, are accusatives of the divine intellect and so cannot exist unless the divine intellect exists. The divine intellect limits the divine will.

So the problem remains: How can God create the world out of nothing if nothing can come from nothing? How can we reconcile (CEN) with (ENN)?

One response to the problem is to say that (CEN), properly understood, states that God creates out of nothing distinct from himself. Thus he does not operate upon any pre-given matter, nor, as some passages in Aquinas imply, bestow existence on pre-given essences. But this formulation allows that, in some sense, God creates ex Deo, out of himself. Creating the world out of himself, God creates the world out of nothing distinct from himself. In this way, (CEN) and (ENN) are rendered compatible.

In sum, ‘Creatio ex nihilo’ is ambiguous. It could mean that God creates out of nothing, period, in which case (CEN) collides with (ENN), or that God creates out of nothing ultimately distinct from himself. My proposal is that the Latin phrase be construed in the second of these ways. So construed, it has the sense of ‘creatio ex Deo.’

But what exactly does it mean to say that God creates out of God? Anthony Flood rather uncharitably takes me to mean precisely what I do not mean, namely, that God creates out of God in a way that implies that the product of the creative operation (creation in the sense of created entities) is identical to its operator (God) and its operand (God). That would amount to an absurd pantheism in which all distinctions are obliterated, a veritable "night in which all cows are black" (Hegel).

When I say that God creates ex Deo what I mean is that God operates on entities that are not external to God in the sense of having existence whether or not God exists. I build a rock cairn to mark the trail by piling up otherwise scattered rocks. These rocks exist whether or not I do. My creation of the cairn is therefore not ex nihilo, but out of materials external to me. If God created in that way he would not be God as classically conceived, but a Platonic demiurge. So I say that God creates out of ‘materials’ internal to him in the sense that their existence depends on God’s existence and are therefore in this precise sense internal to him. (I hope it is self-evident that materials need not be made out of matter.) In this sense, God creates ex Deo rather than out of materials that are provided from without. It should be obvious that God, a candidate for the status of an absolute, cannot have anything ‘outside him.’

Suppose properties are concepts in the divine mind. Then properties are necessary beings in that they exist in all metaphysically possible worlds just as God does. The difference, however, is that properties have their necessity from another, namely God, while God has his necessity from himself. (This distinction is in Aquinas.) Suppose that properties are the ‘materials’ or ontological constituents out of which concrete contingent individuals – thick particulars in Armstrong’s parlance – are constructed. (This diverges somewhat from what I say in PTE, but no matter: it is a simplification for didactic purposes.) We can then say that the existence of contingent individual C is just the unity or contingent togetherness of C’s ontological constituents. C exists iff C’s constituents are unified. Creating is then unifying. Since the constituents are necessary beings, they are uncreated. But since their necessity derives from God, they are not independent of God.

In this sense, God creates out of himself: he creates out of materials that are internal to his own mental life. It is ANALOGOUS to the way we create objects of imagination. (I am not saying that God creates the world by imagining it.) When I construct an object in imagination, I operate upon materials that I myself provide. Thus I create a purple right triangle by combining the concept of being purple with the concept of being a right triangle. I can go on to create a purple cone by rotating the triangle though 360 degrees on the y-axis. The object imagined is wholly dependent on me the imaginer: if I leave off imagining it, it ceases to exist. I am the cause of its beginning to exist as well as the cause of its continuing to exist moment by moment. But the object imagined, as my intentional object, is other than me just as the creature is other than God. The creature is other than God while being wholly dependent on God just as the object imagined is other than me while being wholly dependent on me.

Flood thinks that "The notion of total dependence, dependence in every respect, entails identity, and therefore no dependence at all. If a is dependent on b in all respects, then a ‘collapses’ into b, taking dependency, and difference, with it." So if the creature is dependent on God both for its existence and for its nature, the creature collapses into God. And of course we can’t have that. It is obvious that the manifest plurality of the world, the difference of things from one another and from God, must be maintained. We cannot allow a pantheism according to which God just is the world, nor one on which God swallows up the plural world and its plurality with it.

Flood’s principle lately quoted is refuted by every intentional object qua intentional object. The object imagined is totally dependent in its existence on my acts of imagining. After all, I excogitated it: in plain Anglo-Saxon, I thought it up, or out. This excogitatum, to give it a name, is wholly dependent on my cogitationes and on the ego ‘behind’ these cogitationes if there is an ego ‘behind’ them. (Compare Sartre’s critique of Husserl on this score in the former’s Transcendence of the Ego.) But this dependence is entirely consistent with the excogitatum’s being distinct both from me qua ego, and from the intentional acts or cogitationes emanating from the ego and directed upon the excogitatum. To press some Husserlian jargon into service, the object imagined ist kein reeller Inhalt, it is not "really contained" in the act. The object imagined is neither immanent in the act, nor utterly transcendent of the act: it is a transcendence in immanence. It is ‘constituted’ as a transcendence in immanence.

Flood’s principle is also refuted by more mundane examples, examples that I would not use to explain the relation between creator and creature. Consider a wrinkle W in a carpet C. W is distinct from C. This is proven by the fact that they differ property-wise: the wrinkle is located in the Northeast corner of the carpet, but the carpet is not located in the Northeast corner of the carpet. (The principle here is the Indiscernibility of Identicals.) But W is wholly (totally) dependent on C. A wrinkle in a carpet cannot exist without a carpet; indeed, it cannot exist apart from the very carpet of which it is the wrinkle. Thus W cannot ‘migrate’ from carpet C to carpet D. Not only is W dependent for its existence on C, but W is dependent on C for its nature (whatness, quiddity). For W just is a certain modification of the carpet, and the whole truth about W can be told in C-terms. So W is totally dependent on C.

Here again we see that total dependence, pace Flood, does not entail identity.

Flood raises some other questions, but the answers to these must be reserved for future posts since this one is already too much in violation of the cardinal precept of blogic brevity. "Brevity is the soul of blog," as some wit once said.

To sum up. Flood thinks that Deck’s article proves something quite important, something so important that it "broke the hold" of Thomism on him. To quote the last sentence of Deck’s article: "If there is any total dependence anywhere, either of creature upon God, or of anything upon anything else, the dependent must be a one in respect to that upon which it depends." What I have shown is that this is just plain false. The wrinkle W in the carpet C is totally dependent upon C. But W is arguably composed of essence and existence. W has a particular essence capturable in a description (so and so long, high, etc.), and an existence.

But the other class of examples is more interesting. Any intentional object qua intentional object is wholly dependent on the mental life relative to which it an accusative. And yet such objects evince essence/existence composition. The purple triangle I was imagining a while ago was purple and triangular, but its nature as specifiable in terms of those properties, is distinct from its being.

I have also shown (using the same examples) that Flood is wrong in his radical thesis in which he ‘out-Decks Deck’ by maintaining that total dependence of A on B entails identity of A with B. Deck didn’t go that far. His point was merely that total dependence of A on B is incompatible with essence/existence composition in A.

I thank Mr Flood for his stimulating comments. For the responses of some other bloggers, which I have not yet studied, go here and here.