On God As The Source Of Being But Not Of Evil

Introduction

This post is a long one but an important one for understanding what sophisticated Roman Catholic philosophers have traditionally meant when they have said that “God is good” and that the existence of evil is not to be taken as counter-evidence to their belief in God’s goodness.  Very often we atheists are dismissed as ignorant of serious theology and theistic metaphysics or as picking on theologically unsophisticated versions of Christianity because it’s simply an easier target than trying to refute the more profound religious philosophers.   In what follows, I will cut to the core of what traditional Roman Catholicism since Thomas Aquinas genuinely thinks is going on philosophically, and not merely metaphorically, when they talk about God’s goodness.  What follows is the basic outline of what God supposedly really is and my arguments as to why this philosophical interpretation of the concept fails to solve the problem of the evil in any meaningful way.  I have demarcated major section breaks to help you read it in parts if it is too long for you to read all in one sitting.  I could have made each of the parts into its own post but I wanted to present all the ideas together in a unified context which explained and critiqued interrelated ideas all together in a cohesive presentation.

In this post, I am going to criticize a general form of the historically common ” “evil as privation” arguments meant to absolve a supposed good God of responsibility for creating evil.  I am going to argue that the main flaw in “evil as privation” theodicy is that its potential persuasiveness hinges on our willingness to accept a patently misleading equivocation between unrelated senses of the word “good”.  And, worse, I will argue that the philosophers who endorse these arguments while also permitting average believers to understand God with the traditional metaphor that he is a loving father are guilty of a fundamentally misleading bait and switch.

Being As Intrinsically Good

All things, insofar as they are, have goodness.  This is because, for any existent thing whatsoever, to be is necessarily better than not being (regardless of whether a given existent thing consciously acknowledges this or is even capable of thinking about it at all).  This goodness is partly a function of the fact that every existent thing inherently depends upon its having being in order to have any other good things.

Existing is, in the first place, the most foundational good.  It is the good in which all other goods can even occur.  All actual good things are existent things and we can only enjoy them if they exist and if we exist.  Even our own personal excellences all require our own existences as their precondition and, furthermore, fulfilling our potential for an excellence essentially consists of existing in certain greater ways rather than in other lesser ways.   All that is either intrinsically excellent or delightful to others aboutany existent thing is also a function of its way of existing, the form its existence takes.

I borrow Plato and Aristotle’s term “form” only with the proviso that it needs always to be read in ways that are consistent with modern biology.  If you think it is impossible or unwise to retain form or essence language given the facts known by modern biology, leave your objection in the comments and I will happily explore my reasons for thinking they can be compatible and complementary ways of understanding the natural world and how philosophical recourse to this metaphysical language need not lead to any confusions about the proper biological nomenclature or be inconsistent with recognition of biological processes.

As my first preemptive defenses against foreseeable objections: I only see biological “forms” as the contingent results of natural selection, not as in any way immaterial essences given directly to beings by a divine agency.  By forms I also do not mean to imply that any non-biologically-based, distinguishable metaphysical, non-physical thing is at work in natural entities making them take the shapes they have.  The “forms” things have are purely functions of physical, chemical, and biological processes. There are also no strict formal constraints that prevent evolution by which one species splits into two.

By the term “form” in general, I only refer to recurrent, scientifically specifiable patterns of organization that make different entities classifiable as belonging to common groups, as essentially the same kinds of things.

In other words, I refer to the fact that, for whatever physical, chemical, or biological reasons are explanatory in any given case, there are patterns of being which occur the same in more than one entity, such that each of those entities can be rightly and accurately referred to as the same “kinds” or “forms” of things and expected as such to have either identical properties and behaviors or to have characteristically similar ones, which can be, or already are, scientifically specifiable.

Every ”form” is a way to exist and, therefore, if what I said at the beginning is correct, a possible way to be good.  Now a given being may or may not completely fulfill its formal possibility for existing excellently according to its kind. Every being, essentially, might more or less fully realize the potential which its nature gives it.  It may become a more or less excellent instance of its kind.  The more that a thing fulfills its potential, the more it actualizes its nature, and the more it becomes that thing.

For a simple example, all humans have some musicality which gives us each at leastsome potential to be musicians.  The more that one of us fulfills the excellences of music performance, the more one becomes an excellent musician.  In Aristotelian language (while not endorsing the superseded physics with which he interpreted the terms), to turn a potentiality into an actuality is to realize a form.

The more a thing does the characteristic things of its kind, the more it becomes in actuality, and not just potentially, a thing of that kind.  The more excellently you do those characteristic things which are fit for your kind of being, the more closely, ideally, and powerfully you embody its formal ideal.  And, in some significant sense, this makes you more that sort of thing.

In a certain real sense, the degree to which a musician plays according to ideals of perfect musicianship, the more she is a musician and the less adequately she approaches the ideal of perfect musicianship, the less she is a musician.  This intuition is captured when we praise a good musician by saying “she is quite a musician” or criticize a bad musician by saying, “she isn’t much of a musician”.

What we are saying in the latter example is that what she does functions less as musicianship the further it gets from being an instance of ideal musicianship and she herself is less of a musician to that extent.  And vice versa in the former case.

So, we fulfill a potential to do something not only by doing the formal motions involved in doing that thing but, more importantly, by doing that thing in ideal ways.  We actualize ourselves as musicians not just by plucking on strings or blowing into horns but by effectively expressing musical skills and by effectively creating instances of music which excellently do whatever music characteristically does.

And this does not go just for being a musician of course but it goes for being a whole human being.  The more we actualize our potentials the more we fully realize our human nature by more closely approaching an ideal of human perfection and existing more fully as human.

While we are all, of course, minimally human by virtue of belonging to the species and doing human activity to at least some minimums of characteristic human excellence, we can more fully realize our humanity and more fully exist as humans to the extent that we realize our characteristic excellences.  These excellences are our virtues, be they moral, intellectual, or technical.

In some real way, having only the crudest and most rudimentary musical abilities, as I do for example, and rarely expressing any of them, means I am less fully existing as a human being than, say, an alternate version of me who had all my own cultivated powers and expressions of them but also added to them the fulfillment of the ideal of musicality.

In this sort of picture we see how being can be equated with goodness. The extent that I do something excellent is the extent to which I am a certain kind of being and the extent to which I lack an excellence is the extent to which I am not a certain kind of being.

There are some excellences which I can never have because of constraints I get from being human.  I can only be excellent in terms of the powers germane to my kind of being and in terms of the possible complex recombinations of power permitted within the constraints of my kind of being. The degree to which I fail to excellently realize those powers is the extent to which I fail to ideally be my kind of being.

Just as when a heart fails to pump blood, it fails to realize the very functionality which biologically defines it as a heart and so fails any longer to, in effect, be a heart, we can say that:

When I fail to philosophize well, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a philosopher.

When I fail to act morally well, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a moral human being.

When I fail to be a moral human being, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not excellent according to central human powers.

When I fail to be excellent according to central human powers, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not an ideal human being.

When I fail to be an ideal human being, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a human being.

Of course, the qualifiers “functionally speaking” and “to that extent” are crucial to all of the above distinctions.  Fortunately, by our very nature, before we die we never failcompletely to fulfill our powers that make us human and until we die we can have the structures that, even when temporarily not functional, make for formal humanity.  Only once dead, when we completely stop functioning as human beings do and we lose all our human structures, do we completely stop being human.

Defining God, For Argument’s Sake, As “Whatever Explains Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing”

The next premise of the argument is that God is whatever that thing is which explains why there is something rather than nothing. Now, there are reasons for and against calling this principle “God”. The reasons for using the term is that the word “God” has a long legacy of being used this way in philosophy and that, as the idea of a being which is our source, it is consistent with even the layman’s notion of what a “God” would be.

The reason to be hesitant about calling whatever this thing that explains why there is something rather than nothing “God”, whether it is in some way an aspect of known realities or a distinct entity outside of known nature, is that the word “God” for most people also has very specific and immediate associations with the gods of religions and, more specifically in the West, the monotheistic personal, interventionist god of the Abrahamic faiths. Using the same word for the metaphysical principle that explains why there is something rather than nothing that people as a matter of first connotation associate with the god of Judaism, Christianity, and/or Islam, is to prejudice them to think that saying there must be a principle which explains why there is something rather than nothing also means saying there must be the god of the Abrahamic faiths (or at least of the god they are most familiar with or enculturated to believe in).

On the strictly metaphysical level, when we posit the reality (or aspect of reality) which explains why there is something rather than nothing, this principle could be anything from a single feature of the world to a feature of all its most basic components to a being somehow totally separate from the known universe which nonetheless causes it, etc. So, if we say that there must be something that causes known reality to exist we say there must be a “God”, according to one linguistically traditional definition, but we have no reason that I know of to think that that being is the same as any of the anthropomorphically imagined deities who have personalities and interact with humans and nature.

And if we restrict what we say we know about this entity, or class of entities, to what is strictly necessary to say about it or them in order to square how there is something rather than nothing, we really cannot say very much about it or them. We certainly cannot say, based only on the bare inference that there must be something that accounts for why there are things rather than no things, that this something or somethings must be personal or interested in humanity in a conscious way or that it has any interest whatsoever in people going to church or mosque or temple. We have no reason to think it hates gays or premarital sex or abortion or pork or war or working on Saturdays.

But digressing, for the sake of argument, let’s call this cause (or these causes) of all known being “God” or “gods”. And for simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it or them a singular “God” for the rest of this analysis. Let’s just posit that there is a unified source of all known reality. It may be a feature of reality itself or external to it. It makes no difference. Let’s say this being somehow is responsible for all the realities we know such that ultimately their very existence is traceable to its being as their source, regardless of how that works.  We’ll just call that being, whatever it is and however it operates to create beings, “God”.

Separating Philosophical Arguments About God’s Nature From Theological Ones

Now, thinking this way, we can understand what Thomas Aquinas was doing in his strictly philosophical attempts to solve the problem of evil and to found the source of morality. Aquinas was a brilliant philosopher who respected the difference between philosophy and theology by segregating much of his discussion of the two subjects. He made philosophical arguments that appealed only to general reason and evidence so that non-believers who did not accept the Bible or Christian tradition could be persuaded by argumentation and not forced to believe by faith what could not be proven by reason.  By contrast, in his theological arguments, he tried to reconcile his philosophical conclusions with Christian authorities, including the Bible of course, and there did unfortunately embrace dogmatic authoritarian sources on faith. But at least he did not pretend those were rationally derivable truths that did not require faith.

So, what does Aquinas conclude philosophically about God and goodness. We can ignore his theologically based views because they are rooted in assumptions that the Christian tradition and its traditional sources of authority are inherently true.  And there’s no good reason to assume that.  But can he persuade us with arguments made purely on philosophical grounds that at least the Christian myths refer to actual philosophical truths—even if we do not buy all the fantastic superstitious faith-based beliefs?  Might Christianity still be metaphorically true if not literally?

The Literal, Non-Metaphorical, Philosophical Implications Of The God-Concept

Aquinas argues that if God is the source of all contingent beings, it itself is not a limited finite being itself but a necessarily eternal and unlimited being. It has no definition as merely one temporary combination of matter and form within reality but must be pure being itself to be the source of all other being. Lacking no being, it can lack no goodness since to be is simply to be good. For God to be the “creator” simply means, in philosophical non-metaphorical terms, that the source of all being is the reason all observable realities have being at all.

God’s love of “humanity” is just a function of being’s love of being as intrinsically good.  Assuming Aquinas is right and God is personal (though I see no reason to think this could be true), God, as the fullness of being, would love being because it is intrinsically good.  God would love the intrinsic desirableness of our being itself.

God As Creator Of Morality By Being Creator Of The Human Form

God creates morality, on this conception, by being the source of forms. All beings take essential forms in that they are specific things. There’s no free floating “being” that is not taking some particular form which makes it a specific kind of actually existing being. If all beings come from the source of all being, ultimately all the forms which beings take are also traceable back to the necessary being who gives all things their existence.  As Aquinas has personalized God, he can interpret the forms that beings take as not merely issuing out of the source of all being in a blind and purposeless way but rather as being deliberately designed.  God, in a personal, intelligent, and deliberate way designates all the ideal natural possibilities in which beings can exist.

At this point, I would diverge, not thinking there is any reason to think that the ground of all being is itself personal or that it deliberately chooses the formal patterns that natural things take. Since many of these formal patterns emerge through the apparently contingent process of natural selection, they do not seem to go back to a designing personal God who bequeathed to the universe fixed forms from the start.  So, Aquinas is already losing me philosophically here despite might weakness for “form” language, my sympathies with his tendency to associate being and goodness, and my theoretical openness to a basic principle which accounts for why there is something rather than nothing.

But, for the sake of understanding the logic of the Thomist (and, therefore, of official Catholic philosophy), let’s grant that the personal God created the forms for living things on purpose and with purpose. Having a form gives a thing an essential nature to realize. One realizes one’s essential nature by functioning according to that form. So, for an uncontroversial example, if I hire a painter, I can set out the essence of the job of painting in terms of functions which the painter has to perform. If the painter performs them, in performing them the painter becomes an actual painter and not just someone with the title. If I hire a painter and he never paints anything, he never really is a painter as he never does what painters do—he never paints.

So, if God gives us a form as human beings, “He” gives us a set of characteristic functions. To the extent that we perform them excellently, we fulfill our humanity, to the extent that we poorly function or damage our own abilities to function according to our characteristic functions, we fail to fully actualize our humanity. I think there is a lot of truth in this conception of human good and so am sympathetic to Aquinas, who was an influence on me when I read him. Only I think that our formal possibilities and characteristic functions are not at all God given and I do not think they are strictly constrained by an abstract formal essence determined in advance.  Forms clearly evolve and are fluid.  Form is conceived much more accurately, I think, as a heuristic category than as a distinct “causal principle” functioning in nature.

I think that evolutionary theory makes clear that our formal powers, our characteristic possibilities for excellent functioning arose contingently and I think that we can recombine our powers and restructure our social order in order to maximize them in ways that involve not looking at the basic hardware bequeathed to us by natural selection but imagining and creating richer, new ways to become more powerful, more effective human beings. And I think that the connection between the source of all being (whether it comes from within reality or from outside of it) is remote in its effects that create the particular forms we see.  They emerge through natural interactions not straight from the “will” of the source of nature itself (whatever that is). Those forms do not reflect any conscious or direct will of that source of being, even though they somehow flow out from it as its ultimate actual consequences. These may be determined, necessary consequences and expressions of the nature of that source of all being as Spinoza thought or they may be the open ended chance results of that being.

Natural And Moral Evils As Ways To Lack Of Being, Ways To Fail To Realize Forms

But, for the sake of understanding the Thomist reply to evil, let’s hypothetically posit that our forms come from a personal God. Then the argument about evil goes like this. God is inherently a necessary, complete, and simple being. Evil is defined as the lack of being or the disorder of good being. By a “lack of being” we can mean the lack of complete fulfillment of a being’s formal essence. So, to the extent that I do not fully actualize my human essence, I suffer an evil because I lack some of the possible goodness my form made possible for me. When a tooth has a cavity, it is an incomplete tooth, missing some of the tooth “being”, so to speak, which would make it a complete tooth, i.e.. a fully actualizing tooth according to the “form of the tooth” (if we can speak of teeth having forms, at least for illustration purposes). Similarly, eyes’ characteristic function is, obviously, to see. When an eye is blind it suffers an evil for lacking its proper functionality according to its inherent form.

Evil is not only present when a thing’s part, required by its form, is missing but also when the parts that are there function in a disordered way. As Plato had realized, for example, it does not take specifically “evil” traits to make people behave badly. All that was necessary was that our good traits, such as our reason, our “spirited” part which was concerned with honor and willing to defend ourselves, and our appetitive desires (our desires for the pleasures of food, drink, sex, comfort, money etc.) get prioritized wrongly. The desire for sex is good, but it should not overwhelm your reason and lead you into unjust sexual acts or harmful ones, etc. Your desire to defend your honor is good, but it should not lead you to defend yourself when you are actually in the wrong and deserving of shame, etc.

So, we do not need an “evil” trait in order to do evil. Our inherently good traits, dispositions, and powers can all easily contribute to our living well. And they can all be badly used if we act on them at the wrong times, in the wrong places, in the wrong ways, according to the wrong priorities (and wrong balance between them), etc.

Now, there are two kinds of evil, natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil occurs wherever we suffer a deficiency that makes us unable to live a fully good life. Going blind, getting sick, naturally lacking skills with intelligence, having one’s house destroyed by a hurricane, getting killed, etc., are all natural evils. They involve no moral failure, but involve suffering evil, i.e., lacking good things important to our abilities to fully flourish in life.

Moral evils come from having our inherently good powers disordered such that we deliberately choose to follow our inclinations in ways that express poor moral judgment or either an excess or a deficiency an inclination that would be more excellently realized, according to its proper form, if expressed moderately.

God As Creator Only Of Beings (Which Are Good) But Not Of Non-Beings (Which Are Evil)

So, how do these helpful, illuminating, and essentially true distinctions about evil relate to the problem of evil? What do they have to do with the paradox of positing an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God despite the fact of evident suffering? The problem of evil, as you know, is the idea that since an omnipotent God could prevent evil if he so chose and an all-good or all-loving God would prevent evil if he could, the observable fact of evil in the world proves that God is either not omnipotent, not all-good or all-loving, or non-existent altogether.

The Thomistic solution to this paradox hinges on the sense in which God is good and the sense in which evil exists only as a negation. The sense in which God is said to be good, philosophically speaking, is strictly the sense in which God is the source of all being. Since being is inherently good and since the only thing we can infer with certainty about God is that it is necessary being, God is good and the source of all and only good things. “But,” you object, “God is the source of evil things if he created everything and some things are evil!”  But no, God is the source of actual beings and there are no intrinsically evil beings. There are only good beings which miss some of their possible goodness and so are not as good as they could be. But insofar as they are at all, i.e., to the extent that they have being, as such they are good.

God is the source of good beings, like us, with good traits and powers and dispositions, and all that God, as the source of being, can be said to give us is those traits and powers and dispositions. When I let my desire for honor override my rational understanding of justice and get into a fight for immoral reasons, that’s evil. And it happens without God “creating” any evil “thing”. It happens because I use the good things given to me by God, which are all in themselves good, in a way that is harmful to both my flourishing (and/or others’) and an obstacle to my (and/or their) fulfillment of the natural, formal ideal God laid out for me (and/or them).

So, God, on this conception, is just the giver of being. Wherever there is a lack of being it is not because God made a “lack” since a lack is not some thing that can be made. Wherever there is a disorder of being it is not because the being which God gave is inherently disordered. “When you ask, but if God is all good and all loving why would He create beings which were deficient? Why would he give someone all the human properties except eyesight? Or why would He give human beings all these good traits but then make it so easy and natural for us to be so demonstrably bad at managing them the best way possible?” And this is where the philosophical Thomistic defense of God gets callous.

The argument is that God, as the free giver of being is under no compulsion to create any particular kind of being. It is nonsensical to say, “Why didn’t God create a two-headed elephant!” Why would God have to? God is no less good, in the sense of a being with no lack of being in Him, if He opts not to create every possible good being. God’s being good is simply a function of God’s being pure, necessary being that lacks nothing by way of being. God is good whether or not He opts to create a world, whether He opts to create a world of billions of species or of just 5, and whether or not he opts to give you eyesight or whether or not he gives you an instinctual harmony between all your dispositions and powers that automatically leads to your flourishing.

The Metaphorical Bait And Philosophical Switch

But that, in my view, makes God callous and indifferent and that’s not moral.  So God is not, morally speaking, good.  And the response from the Thomist is that morality does not apply to God. Morality is a human thing. It is a human way of living up to the human form. We have to fulfill our essences to be fully what we are and morality is a way of living well according to practical decisions with respect to action. God, though, is not a finite being and has no form, but is just pure, simple being. He has no moral obligations. He just creates or does not create at arbitrary whim. Morality is binding on us because He gave us a nature which requires adherence to morality in order to completely fulfill itself. But morality is not a cosmic law that even God must obey.

Therefore, when stripped of all the misleading metaphors about God being “loving” and “morally good” and a “father”, the real, non-metaphorical understanding of God in Thomistic, i.e., official Roman Catholic philosophy, is that God’s goodness is only His “fullness of being” and has nothing whatsoever to do with the respect and care for people or for moral principles which we think of as the praiseworthy and morally lovable kind of goodness.  God’s only concern for our morality is as its designer, not as one subject to it.  God is as unconstrained in action by the morality he made necessary for us as, say, a computer programmer is unconstrained by the program she makes vital for her programs to perform their functions.  Her own actions away from the computer are not run by the program she writes and she does not have to make any particular program do any particular thing she is not inclined to make it do.

Saying God is a “father” non-metaphorically just means “God is the source of your being”, analogous to the way your father is, but it does not mean that He will go out of His way to do anything for you whatsoever to make sure you prosper, as a paradigmatic actual loving father would. This source of being “father” we have might just not bother to give you all the healthily working body parts or all the mental powers or all the necessary material resources to even minimally, let alone maximally, flourish according to the nature He gave you.

So, this is philosophically, in sophisticated, abstract terms, what educated Catholics understand all the Christian mythology to literally mean. All the metaphors which invite people to feel an interpersonal bond with God rely on a fundamental bait and switch, as I see it. What lay person would feel tempted to feel any special affection for an indifferent source of all being which generates us with no necessary concern to make sure that we have all the physical, mental, emotional, and material resources necessary to flourish? What lay person would feel satisfied with the cold, barren abstraction that God is all good because He lacks no being but not all good in the sense of giving a single damn about preventing you from being raped or your kid from dying of leukemia or your billions of fellow humans from starving everyday.

Philosophically, this route to washing God’s hands of responsibility for evil, strips God of all that moral goodness which alone could make a personal being lovable to other moral beings and upon which alone people hope when they pray and worship God.

Casting My Atheism In Catholic Philosophy’s Terms

Philosophically speaking, we had might as well just interpret this source of all being atheistically as an ultimately indifferent and accidental benefactor to us which had no conscious intentions to create us.  We can posit that it just emanated all reality into being as an expression of its eternal essence.  Or conceive that it is reality itself, taken under one of its aspects, which expresses itself in all the observable modes of being (including ourselves) as we experience them. In either case, its creation of us is a remote effect of its essential nature and it is less than indifferent to whether we exist or thrive (not even having any feelings, not even indifference).  Insofar as the laws of its nature ultimately led to the laws of our natures, and to the naturally valuable moral precepts upon which we rely, it is a source of morality but it is only so in that remote way that leaves moral understanding open-ended as we learn more.

We can feel a sense of wondrous gratitude for the source of all being, whatever it might be, in that it is the precondition of our existing and existing for us is truly an intrinsic good and, therefore, one which only rightly should cause us incredible delight. But we would not be directing that gratitude to any being that cared in the least to make us come about, but towards one which just happened to do so by its own blind, indifferent processes.  We should feel towards it however we should feel about gravity or electromagnetism or the sun or any other impersonal dynamic which constitutes an irreplaceable condition of our existence.

And we can certainly judge that the same processes emanating from the source of all being could just as indifferently destroy us as they created us.  Ironically, this sober, realistic, naturalistic, functionally teleological, existentialistic, atheistic picture of the world and our place in it is essentially consonant with the philosophically Thomistic picture of the world—just as long as one removes the anthropomorphic imputation of personhood to an abstract metaphysical postulate and the propagandistic myths designed to look at the fundamental reality which makes things exist at all as though it (a) were itself morally good, (b) loved us in any literally meaningful sense, (c) gave special revelations about its will to people in the Bible, (d) mysteriously became a human being and was murdered as part of a ritual sacrifice, and (e) demanded complete submission of mind and body to the authority of the Vatican.

But for all that stuff, I had might as well be a Catholic.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    But for all that stuf, you might as well be a Neoplatonist. Actually, you WOULD be a Neoplatonist.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I guess then I AM a Neoplatonist then?

  • david crowther

    I’m not a catholic either- :)
    A couple thoughts pop up: they are not answers or rebuttals or corrections of any sort, but thoughts that plague me as I follow and agree with your train of thought:

    1) so why do I care? If there is no person-ness to the source of all being, why should I i) have any sense or even desire to describe myself as having a personality; or ii) desire to see person-ness in the source of all being?

    If the source of all being is not personal, how could any being be personal- what is the source of all personality?

    2) Also, and here I stray, just a slight bit from you Dan, you have spoken a few times, in the posts I’ve read, about the evolving and changing forms of beings, and you have, at least, intimated that the form of human being is improving (correct me if I’m wrong or have misinterpreted you there); what I don’t see, is any evidence whatsoever, that we are at all better at being what we are, than we ever were- especially in reference to your above thoughts on morality (which I follow and agree with in stark philosophical terms). (and yet, we ma not really know what our true being is).

  • david crowther

    ps- I read the post in total- it’s not too long.

  • Daniel Fincke

    There’s quite a bit to say to your second question, so I will add it to the burgeoning list of launching questions for my serious development of my teleological moral philosophy on the blog.

    But to quickly answer the first question, starting backwards with the second part, I don’t see any reason to see the source of all being as personal any more than there is reason to see the gravity or space or atoms as personal.

    But we are personal because we are a particular combination of impersonal stuff with the capability of functioning in a personal way. The dogma of our unlearned common sense way of looking at the world is that there is a chasm between living things on the one side and non-living things on the other and the one could never come from the other. But that’s a prejudice of appearances. The most rudimentary elements of which we are made are not themselves alive but living is a function of certain possible combinations they take.

    This is tough because we are (evolutionarily?) rigged to make clear discriminations between things that move and live and which should be responded to that way and other things that don’t move and don’t live and should be treated another way. And I think that’s a hangover that makes you think we cannot be a person if we are made of (or by) the impersonal.

    And as to your point in 1.i, you cannot escape sensing yourself to be a person and you need no conscious desire to see yourself as one. You are, to be Sartrean about it, “condemned” to personhood. It is what you are. If it goes, you go. You are invested in it as the precondition of every particular thing you are invested in as a person. You must desire it as the precondition of desiring any other experience. They can only be experiences for you (as you) if they take part as part of your personal engagement with the world.

  • bezboznik

    Sorry, but you’ve failed at making theologians sound any smarter than the average schmoe. In fact they sound dumber. This isn’t some higher level of understanding & explanation, it just exposes their eagerness for the fraud of it all. Theology is turd polishing of the lowest kind because they eat their own turds after buffing them out to a high gloss finish. Might as well get a degree in basket weaving instead because theology is literally talking about nothing. Pathetic.

  • Anthony G

    Great post and not too long. I would like to respond to this more fully in the future, but, as a Catholic, I’m happy that you’ve outlined your position regarding the full (I’d like to read your post again) Thomistic understanding of God.

    I’ll read it again, but so far it’s reasonable, even the funny addenda at the end that keep you from being Catholic, without the sine quod non of Christianity. (Fuller explanation forthcoming, Professor.)

    PS: Would you provide a link to your writings that debunk the Christians’ view of Jesus of Nazareth, where basically they’ve overvalued him? I would also find that interesting.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Sorry, but you’ve failed at making theologians sound any smarter than the average schmoe. In fact they sound dumber. This isn’t some higher level of understanding & explanation, it just exposes their eagerness for the fraud of it all. Theology is turd polishing of the lowest kind because they eat their own turds after buffing them out to a high gloss finish. Might as well get a degree in basket weaving instead because theology is literally talking about nothing. Pathetic.

    Well, I think they perpetuate an under-reported bait and switch, but I do not think they are dumb. The viewpoint they offer does not at all answer the problem of evil (but instead evades it) or provide a genuinely consistent philosophical “true” meaning for the religious metaphors. And I do think all of that it is rather immorally dishonest. And so I wanted to alert atheists to what’s really going on so that they can press these issues with more learned Catholics and send less learned Catholics TO the learned Catholics with a better set of questions. So, I had little intention of making the Catholic philosophers look either smarter or dumber (and certainly no intentions of legitimizing theology.

    But instead, I wanted to slap back the hand that waves away atheists as “not dealing with serious and sophisticated understandings of God from within the historical Christian tradition.

    But, all that said, I do not think that the philosophy going on there is just turd polishing. What’s happening is rather interesting philosophy and metaphysics and theories of goodness and evil. And Thomas Aquinas deserves an enormous credit as a powerfully incisive philosopher. The fact that he also put his mind to trying his damnedest to make his best philosophy into a metaphorical match to his theologically based beliefs is an unfortunate by-product of his place in history, but not a mark against his intellect or, even, his intellectual integrity.

    I get the impression from studying him that he always gave philosophy sufficient autonomy. He did not compromise philosophical truth as he saw it for the sake of theological apologetics, but rather the other way around he twisted and contorted the incompatible religious tradition in which he was steeped to fit what he thought philosophically. What is profound about this and what makes him a great thinker is that in the end his philosophy stands up in many places as still insightful and rewarding while it is the theology that comes out looking bad for how it is unsuccessfully shoehorned into the philosophy. But, really, that was inevitable.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Great post and not too long. I would like to respond to this more fully in the future, but, as a Catholic, I’m happy that you’ve outlined your position regarding the full (I’d like to read your post again) Thomistic understanding of God.

    Thanks Anthony! That was another thing important to me about writing this post, was to have a clear and reasonably thorough statement of my point by point agreements and disagreements with Thomas’s God. It’s not quite the full picture of Thomas’s view of course. But it is the decisive axis as far as I am concerned (and the one I researched best while in graduate school).

    I imagine too that I was one of the philosophy teachers you had who covered both Thomas’s view of God and his view of evil. But, in that capacity I didn’t see it as my place to lay out my critique of the concept. I try to support the philosophers in the classroom, rather than undermine them and instead let other philosophers provide the contrast and bases for critique to each other.

    I’ll read it again, but so far it’s reasonable, even the funny addenda at the end that keep you from being Catholic, without the sine quod non of Christianity. (Fuller explanation forthcoming, Professor.)

    I look forward to your fuller explanation! In the meantime, I tossed off that funny closing as a nod to the curious ways in which if you strip away some of the accretions of theology, you can get down to interesting axes of philosophical agreement (and of course disagreement) which might be obscured otherwise.

    I have more than one Thomist philosopher friend with whom I come to very surprising common ground or points of structural philosophical agreement. We often just make a left turn instead of a right turn late in the argument or simply disagree about all the theological stuff but would otherwise be basically allies.

    Unfortunately the theological stuff then often leads Thomists to conclusions that I do not think our shared abstract categories do. For example, I am unusually teleological about ethics, as I have begun to reveal and will continue to explore in future posts. I think ethics derives from and can be interpreted in ways that stem from natural value and natural goods. I am basically in the Thomist camp against the strict consequentialists and the strict deontologists on that.

    But I also think that for mainly theological reasons many Catholics use teleological arguments in fundamentally anti-natural ways to support traditional Christian prejudices. I think there’s a willful refusal among the Catholic natural lawyers to really seriously evolve their understanding of what is natural and how nature guides us to fit expanding scientific knowledge of nature. I think, and I will explore this in-depth in the future that the narrow conclusions about sex and sexuality that they advance are wrong not because they try to ground ethics in nature but because they have such a phenomenally narrow view of what nature and the exact ways that it guides value realization.

    For glimpses of my contrary way to

    Would you provide a link to your writings that debunk the Christians’ view of Jesus of Nazareth, where basically they’ve overvalued him? I would also find that interesting.

    Great post and not too long. I would like to respond to this more fully in the future, but, as a Catholic, I’m happy that you’ve outlined your position regarding the full (I’d like to read your post again) Thomistic understanding of God.

    Thanks Anthony! That was another thing important to me about writing this post, was to have a clear and reasonably thorough statement of my point by point agreements and disagreements with Thomas’s God. It’s not quite the full picture of Thomas’s view of course. But it is the decisive axis as far as I am concerned (and the one I researched best while in graduate school).

    I imagine too that I was one of the philosophy teachers you had who covered both Thomas’s view of God and his view of evil. But, in that capacity I didn’t see it as my place to lay out my critique of the concept. I am glad to have this forum to do so.

    I’ll read it again, but so far it’s reasonable, even the funny addenda at the end that keep you from being Catholic, without the sine quod non of Christianity. (Fuller explanation forthcoming, Professor.)

    I look forward to your fuller explanation! In the meantime, I tossed off that funny closing as a nod to the curious ways in which if you strip away some of the accretions of theology, you can get down to interesting axes of philosophical agreement (and of course disagreement) which might be obscured otherwise. I have more than one Thomist philosopher friend with whom I come to very surprising common ground or points of structural philosophical agreement. We often just make a left turn instead of a right turn late in the argument or simply disagree about all the theological stuff but would otherwise be basically allies.

    Unfortunately the theological stuff then often leads Thomists to conclusions that I do not think our shared abstract categories do. For example, I am unusually teleological about ethics, as I have begun to reveal and will continue to explore in future posts. I think ethics derives from and can be interpreted in ways that stem from natural value and natural goods. I am basically in the Thomist camp against the strict consequentialists and the strict deontologists on that.

    But I also think that for mainly theological reasons many Catholics use teleological arguments in fundamentally anti-natural ways to support traditional Christian prejudices. I think there’s a willful refusal among the Catholic natural lawyers to really seriously evolve their understanding of what is natural and how nature guides us to fit expanding scientific knowledge of nature. I think, and I will explore this in-depth in the future that the narrow conclusions about sex and sexuality that they advance are wrong not because they try to ground ethics in nature but because they have such a phenomenally narrow view of what nature and the exact ways that it guides value realization.

    For glimpses of my contrary way to reason about the value of homosexuality, for example, in naturalistic terms and come to what I think are far better conclusions about the relationship between homosexuality and flourishing human life, see my Argument For Gay Marriage And Against Traditionalism.

    And I will explore those themes more explicitly in the future (and possibly in the form of replies to any challenges or insights you or other readers might offer in the meantime).

    Would you provide a link to your writings that debunk the Christians’ view of Jesus of Nazareth, where basically they’ve overvalued him? I would also find that interesting.

    Without picking through the Gospels point by point showing the numerous ways that Jesus was either a far too limited thinker to be confused for a god-man (however interesting he is on one point or another, there are ostensibly too many better philosophers and more knowledgeable scientists than the human being we’re supposed to believe is God himself) or patently limited as a moral exemplar, I will for the time being direct you to this well-done post by another blogger, which can serve as a helpful primer and invite you to poke me into writing towards more specific posts from there.

  • david crowther

    First for Dan; you said in response to my comment:

    But we are personal because we are a particular
    combination of impersonal stuff with the
    capability of functioning in a personal way. The
    dogma of our unlearned common sense way of
    looking at the world is that there is a chasm
    between living things on the one side and
    non-living things on the other and the one could
    never come from the other. But that’s a prejudice
    of appearances. The most rudimentary elements of
    which we are made are not themselves alive but
    living is a function of certain possible
    combinations they take.

    I agree that it is accurate to describe person-ness as “a function of certain possible combinations [or our most 'rudimentary elemests']“; this description, however, does not speak at all to WHY we are persons. Person-ness, so far as I have learned, is unique in the universe to any other formation of causes, energies and parts. In fact, even, as you have said, “The most rudimentary elements of
    which we are made are not themselves alive” (I take it we are using “alive” and “personal” to mean, basically the same thing here). So we are alive, yet made from what we would call “dead”. Is there anything else comparable? I don’t think so. There is an unexplained gap between the combination of the parts of the person and the person himself. Because there is no evidence (that I know of) that the right combination of dead things can produce something alive, it is logical to conclude that dead things cannot be combined (without something alive) to create a life (I mean, of course, analogous to something that is a person and something that is not). Therefore, it is not-illogical (even if it isn’t wholly logic-based) to suppose that personality had to be put into the combination of personality-less parts to make a person. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s illogical to reason that things that are not imbued with person can ALONE combine to produce a person. This explanation does not necessitate God or a personal GOd or anything of the sort, but it does continue to question what it is to be a person and why we are combined in this way to even care that we are combined in this way?

    I also agree with your Sartre comment that I “desire” to be human (for lack of a better word) because desiring my own humanity is desiring to exist, because I am a human. It is a necessary tautology, but a tautology, nonetheless: I want to be human because I want to exist, where to exist includes being human. Yet the explanation still misses my point: if there is no personality (so to speak) aside from the unique combination of things and causes and energies that combine to make human personalities, than why should I have any sense or desire for a great personality in the sky? I desire my own person-ness, as you have said, because it is to desire to exist itself; but to desire an uber-peron-ness is not necessary to existence itself- it is a whim, a dream, a joke perhaps? Do you get what I am asking? There is a jump somewhere in your explanation that is either my issue (because I don’t understand what you are saying) or your issue (in that you haven’t explained it as well as it could be explained) or both our issues (in that one or both of us are wrong at some point in the chain of logic).

  • david crowther

    As regards bezboznik’s statement about theologians and turd-polishing:

    I am neither a theologian, nor do I disagree that so much of what constitutes Christian apologetics is turd polishing or, at best (as Dan frequently says) a bait and switch; but to so dismiss a theologian because of the drive of his/her analysis of the world (and with so much insult and ire) is to ignore the value in searching (see hoping) for something that cannot be proven or is not yet provable or (for that matter) does not exist (see God). The Theologian is not necessarily a puppet for irrational thought (even if some are), no more than the atheist is necessarily closed-minded, anti-religious or without hope. Moreover, insults cannot replace reasoned discussion, and are, themselves, no more than polished turds, in lieu of logical nuggets. For instance, if bezboznik and I were arguing about whether it was rational to search for GOd or not, his comment does not continue the discussion.

    Indeed, I think it is a very philosophically interesting pursuit to question the rationality or logical value in the idea of HOPE. I agree (more often than not) with Dan’s chain of logic (in fact, it has finely clarified many concepts that have kicked around in my head for a long time), but I still hope that there is something more than can be posited from a solid string or web of logic and I think it is ludicrous to suggest that logic explains GOd away- even if there is no definitive and reviewable logical chain from our own personal existence to some personality behind existence.

    THe fact remains that even though I hope there is a God, I still analyze the world around me with the sharpest rationality and logic that I can muster. I am no less diligent in searching for an answer, than a person who will take no idea or belief for granted. I know that it will constantly be said that my hope for god is exactly why I cannot purely analyze the world around without a bias that clouds my thinking. But it is precisely my hunger for an ANSWER, not a god, that leads me to rethink, rearrange and reword my thoughts and my questions.

  • http://www.willesdensalvage.com Clementine Persyn

    Hi i just thought I should leave a comment as i very much admireyour website its so interesting, keep it up!

  • http://www.kathwallace.com Kathleen Wallace

    Really nice analysis — very fair to the reasoning even as you show what’s flawed in it.

  • Jack Arden

    Really, interesting read, thank you so much.
    I was taking notes.
    I’ll come back to them, if a discussion ensues between us, as I hope it will.
    But this one statement really brought me up short and even though I took issue with prior statements (and also thought, for many others, “oh, THAT’S interesting, he’s got that’) this one you really did not get AT ALL. (Forgive the capitals, I’m not shouting). Here it is:

    ” He just creates or does not create at arbitrary whim.”

    Now, that’s simply not Thomas’s teaching at all. It’s far closer to William of Occam and will have a profound influence on the Protestant Reformers, and subsequently, on the German Enlightenment reaction to that. So, it’s worth knowing where William of Occam and Thomas Aquinas disagree.
    And this is one of them. God is not arbitrary according to Thomas because, he is the First Truth. He is also wise. These are philosophical categories not theological ones, as the sophia in philosophy should indicate…The wisdom of God – though in this context I think First Being is probably a better expression – therefore precludes a purely arbitrary approach to those being that he has brought into existence (notwithstanding the place of secondary causes – which I hope we can come back to in another discussion).
    Aquinas would not put God beyond morality – how could he? To be schematic: God is pure act. Therefore God is the absolute good (or rather the complete or supreme good -it’s better in our post-Totalitarian world that’s tainted the word ‘absolute’). Therefore he is the source, origin and end not only of the goodness in the being of all things – but also, ultimately of all actions of moral agents who attain that good under its moral aspect. (Secondary causality comes in here, in another way, too). He isn’t bound by a good which is above him (pace Plato) which would limit his omnipotence. But neither is the good ‘good’ simply by his say so: the Arbitrary God that you evoke here. He IS, that good…
    This has been discussed all over the net, of course, but I like this one – not because it’s well argued and clear, it really isn’t but because it’s charming the way the author re-invents the Thomist wheel but only after dragging himself and us through all kinds of analytical philosopher counter-factual blurb. Take a look. The C.S. Lewis quote is apposite.
    http://www.theism.net/article/29
    As I said – I’d like to tackle a few other things in your interesting post.
    But it takes two to have a dialogue – so that’s your call.

    One last point/question, though – from a completely different point of view.
    There is something intriguingly pseudo-messianic in the infinitising of possibilities of a world where we ourselves advance the evolution of our own essences, don’t you find? Do the thought experiment yourself and try and hear this phrase as Thomas Aquinas would:
    “I think that we can recombine our powers and restructure our social order… imagining and creating richer, new ways to become more powerful, more effective human beings.”
    I wonder how Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor would have put it….

    Mind how you go.

    • DavidM

      It’s no accident, surely, that the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche as their official philosopher.

  • DavidM

    I appreciate the seriousness of Mr. Fincke’s engagement, but I must agree with Jack that his take on Thomas is often very misleading. I think he gets the doctrine of form wrong, ignores Thomas’ understanding of causality, and butchers Thomas’ view of God’s relation to the world and to human freedom.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X