Talking About God
What does it mean to say “God is just” or “God is merciful” or “God is loving”? Do such statements mean anything, rationally? In this essay, I’m going to argue that they don’t–not if we follow the epistemological premises of Thomas Aquinas to their logical conclusions. If I’m right, then Thomistic theology ultimately negates itself, and the first sentence of Genesis, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, begins and ends rational discourse about God.
So let’s begin, in the beginning, with the first line of Genesis–which was accepted as literally true by Thomas for the very reason that it was the first line of Genesis; it was revealed truth, and thus dependent on faith. Yet he acknowledged the rational possibility that the world had no beginning, that it had existed with God “from eternity.” In a previous essay (PN 44, Jan/Feb 04), I contended that the beginning of the world was in fact demonstrable–a position held by Thomas’s contemporary, Bonaventure. If Bonaventure was right, then Thomas was wrong even to acknowledge the possibility that the world had no beginning.
My argument, in a nutshell, went like this:
My argument, in a nutshell, went like this:
1) Creation, as defined by Thomas, is the emanation of all being, actual and potential, the totality of what is or can be; it includes whatever is logically possible, whatever isn’t a contradiction in terms. Hence, only what cannot be, in a logical sense, cannot be.
2) Unlike God’s eternity, which is timeless and indivisible, the eternity of the world would have to be temporal–would entail the passage of time–and could therefore be divided into fixed units of time. Regardless of whether the world’s age is divided into milliseconds or millennia, only an infinite accumulation of such units would span eternity.
3) However, the age of the world cannot be an infinite accumulation of units because an actual infinitude is a contradiction in terms, the simultaneous attribution of x units and x+1 and x+2 and x+3 . . . units. In other words, actual infinitude entails saying the world is x and not-x units old simultaneously.
But how does deducing that the age of the world is finite affect whether theological statements are meaningful? As it turns out, the necessity of the world’s beginning has profound intellectual consequences. The reasoning is like a stick of taffy; once you begin chewing it, you can’t break it off. Eventually, you discover an inexorable logical line from determining that the world’s age is finite to denying that God can serve as the subject of a rationally meaningful predication.
Thomas, as usual, establishes the framework for the discussion.
The creation of the world, according to Thomas, is the creation of being. And being, as noted above, encompasses for Thomas whatever is or can be, whatever is logically possible. But the description of being in terms of logical possibility hinges on the law of non-contradiction: P cannot be both Q and not-Q simultaneously. The fact that we can rule out the possibility of a contradiction in terms is what that renders every “thing” intelligible. For example, a sentient stone would be a “sentient non-sentient thing.” Because a sentient stone is a contradiction in terms, however, it isn’t even an intelligible thing; it’s literally no thing. By contrast, a unicorn is an intelligible thing. Of course, the discovery of an actual unicorn would come as a surprise. But a unicorn, unlike a sentient stone, isn’t a contradiction in terms; nothing in the definition of “horse” rules out a snowy white one with a long horn on its forehead, so there’s no intrinsic reason a unicorn cannot be. Unicorns fall within the compass of being, which contains not just every known existing thing but every conceivable thing. Whatever is inconceivable, on the other hand, whatever by definition cannot be, is recognizable as such because it violates the law of non-contradiction.
The critical point here is that the law of non-contradiction must be viewed, from the Thomistic standpoint, not merely as a conceptual law but also as an ontological law–a law by which being itself is limited. That much might also be said of the laws of identity (If P is Q, then it is indeed Q) and excluded middle (P must be either Q or not-Q) which, with the law of non-contradiction, constitute the basic laws of thought. To violate these laws is, literally, inconceivable; to accept them as ontological laws–as when Thomas describes being in terms of possibility–is to say only that whatever cannot be conceived cannot be.
I stated earlier that a sentient stone isn’t an intelligible thing. But how does the fact that a sentient stone cannot exist render it unintelligible? Thomas himself provides an answer:
But the true cannot be apprehended unless the notion of being be also apprehended; since being is included in the notion of the true. The case is the same if we were to compare the intelligible object with being. For being cannot be understood except because being is intelligible. (ST 1a.16.3)
What Thomas means here is that in order for a thing to be an “intelligible object,” in order for it even to achieve thing-ness, it must be predicable–that is, you must be able to say something about it; it must be able to stand as the subject of a rational predication. But that means it must conform to the laws of thought. Saying something about anything, saying “P is Q,” necessarily invokes these laws. Thus, whatever violates the law of non-contradiction cannot be the subject of a rational predication since it already contains a simultaneous affirmation and denial of the same predicate. For example, it makes no sense to talk about a sentient stone–a “sentient non-sentient thing.” You only wind up denying whatever you’re saying, in effect, “This stone, which is a stone, isn’t a stone.” The laws of thought are invoked in every predication, or at least in every rationally meaningful one, because it’s only an acknowledgment of the law of non-contradiction that imparts a rational content to P is Q. If Q is affirmed of P, it cannot simultaneously be denied of P, or else the initial predication is empty. Take, for example, the predication “Socrates is mortal.” When I affirm the predicate “mortality” of Socrates, I simultaneously deny the contradictory, “non-mortality.” If Socrates’ mortality doesn’t rule out his non-mortality, what does the proposition “Socrates is mortal” mean?
Again: 1) creation is the creation of being; 2) being exists in conformity with the laws of thought; 3) the world, which is synonymous with being, cannot have existed “from eternity” with God because its infinite age would then violate the laws of thought. The thrust of these three deductions can be summarized in a single statement: At a definite moment in the finite past, the world came into being out of non-being. There was a beginning “in the beginning.” Reason, apart from revelation, can establish this truth.
But what does the foregoing tell us of the cause of the world? Does the deduction of the world’s beginning, and hence of its creation ex nihilo, even require a cause? For Thomas, the answer is yes. The world demands a cause to account for its existence. His Cosmological Argument hinges on the notion that the world is, in itself, an unresolved note that requires a Resolve as a principle of its intelligibility (ST 1a.2.3).
Nor is it conceivable, according to Thomas, that the world serve as its own cause:
There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. (ibid.)
It’s significant that Thomas declares “impossible” that a thing serve as the efficient cause of itself--possibility serving, once again, as the criterion by which being is limited. He must rule out the possibility of a created thing that is its own efficient cause, or else there would be no need to suppose the existence of a Creator; it is, after all, the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, or the Necessary Being that “all men speak of as God” (ibid.). So Thomas insists that the law of causality cannot be violated; every effect, every change from one state to another state, demands a cause. The law of causality is, like the laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle, both logical and ontological in scope. They’re rules by which both rational thought and being itself are governed.
Nevertheless, a number of paradoxes follow from Thomas’s reasoning. The most critical involve the relationship between the laws of thought and the nature of the world’s Cause–which, in deference to Thomas, I’ll speak of as God. For instance, if creation means the onset of being, and if the Cause of the world must precede its effect, it would seem that God’s Being must precede the creation of being itself. But if being of any kind precedes the creation of being, in what sense is creation ex nihilo? Moreover, if the creation of being is the creation not only of actual but also of potential being, in what sense is God’s pre-creation Being being? Finally, if the beginning of the world can be deduced by ruling out the possibility of an actual infinitude, cannot the beginning of God likewise be deduced?
Thomas himself attempts to dismiss, or at minimum sidestep, such questions. Rather than extend God’s existence backwards in time, he removes God from time altogether, adopting Boethius’ notion of eternity as “the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life” (ST 1a.10.1). Hence, Thomas reasons, God must be “eternal” by virtue of his changelessness, or “immutability”:
The notion of eternity follows immutability, as the notion of time follows movement. . . . Hence, as God is supremely immutable, it supremely belongs to Him to be eternal. (ST 1a.10.2)
According to Thomas, the fact that God is immutable, that He doesn’t change, is what removes Him from time. Without change, by which to distinguish “before” from “after,” time effectively ceases to exist: “Eternity is simultaneously whole. But time has a before and an after. Therefore time and eternity are not the same thing” (ST 1a.10.4). It’s evident that “simultaneously whole” cannot be applied to the temporal world since only that which is changeless can be simultaneously whole–and of course the temporal world is changing. But the differences between eternity and temporality don’t end there. Time can be divided into definite units; eternity, by contrast, is indivisible:
. . . granted even that time always goes on, yet it is possible to mark in time both the beginning and the end, by considering its parts:–thus we speak of the beginning and the end of a day, or of a year; which cannot be applied to eternity. (ibid.)
Eternity, Thomas argues, cannot be divided into “before” and “after” since there’s no change; thus, it becomes pointless to speculate about God’s existence before creation. God doesn’t precede creation in time. Thomas insists on this point. Time begins, literally, in the beginning--with the act of creation. God, rather, is prior to creation in terms of logical necessity. Whereas the age of the world, as measured in definite units, must be a finite number, asking about the age of God, whose existence is eternal, is, for Thomas, like asking about the depth of a circle.
But is Thomas justified in his logic?
The tangled logic of eternal existence is pursued at length by Eleanore Stump and Norman Kretzmann in their seminal 1981 essay “Eternity” (The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 78, Number 8, Aug 1981: 429-458). Among the issues raised by Stump and Kretzmann is whether an “eternal entity” can possibly interact with the temporal world. Clearly, the issue is relevant here–since to cause the world is to act on it. It might be supposed, they write, that “just as an eternal entity cannot exist in time . . . an eternal entity cannot act in time.” (447) Stump and Kretzmann conclude, however, that if God is omnipotent, as well as eternal,
he can do anything it is not logically impossible for him to do. Even though his actions cannot be located in time, he can bring about effects in time unless doing so is logically impossible. (448)
The question thus becomes whether it’s logically possible for an “eternal entity” to remain eternal while causing a temporal object, such as the world, to come into existence. Can God remain outside of time in the act of creating temporality? The answer, according to Stump and Kretzmann, is yes. Since God’s omnipotence, like being itself, is limited only by logical possibility, they write, “We can see no reason for thinking it absurd to claim that a divine action resulting in the existence of a temporal entity is an atemporal action.” In other words, there’s no logical impossibility in the suggestion that an atemporal cause, such as an eternal God, can produce a temporal effect, such as creation. God can, Stump and Kretzmann conclude, remain atemporal as he creates the temporal world.
Moreover, from God’s atemporal perspective, the act of creation is simultaneous with the moment of your reading these words on the page. Since eternal existence is “not flanked by past and future” (434), Stump and Kretzmann contend, God doesn’t look back at creation, nor forward to your finishing this essay. The two events are simultaneously present from His viewpoint–whereas, from our temporal point of view, creation far precedes the moment these words are being read. What seems to us the movie of history, with events happening at different times, seems to God an all-inclusive snapshot.
To support their contention of the “relativity of simultaneity,” (437) Stump and Kretzmann cite the Einsteinian example of two lightning bolts striking a train moving at 6/10ths the speed of light; one bolt strikes the front, one the rear. From the standpoint of an observer on the ground, the two bolts strike the train simultaneously. But from the standpoint of an observer riding the train, the bolt that strikes the front of the train will strike first–since it will take the light ray from the bolt striking the rear of the train a while to catch up (ibid). “Simultaneity,” Stump and Kretzmann conclude, “is irreducibly relative to observers and their reference frames, and so is time itself.”
But this conclusion raises more problems than it resolves–for if time is indeed “irreducibly relative” to “reference frames,” then from our own temporal frame of reference, God does have an age. Measured in definite units, his age must be, at minimum, greater than the age of the world. In other words, from our post-creation perspective, He must be prior to the world not only by virtue of His necessity but also by virtue of His presence as the efficient cause of creation; an efficient cause must precede its effect. The Creator must be temporally prior to His creation.
Again, to preserve the law of causality, we must infer the presence of the cause of the world temporally prior, from our perspective, to the moment of creation. Yet since creation must remain the onset of being, the Creator of the world cannot be comprehended within the realm of being–or else, by Thomas’s own reasoning (ST 1a.45.1), He would extend being backwards in “time” into pre-creation, which in turn would render creation not-creation. But if God cannot be comprehended by being, He cannot be bound by the laws of identity, contradiction and excluded middle. And if the laws of thought cease to be binding, then the act of predication becomes rationally meaningless.
The same conclusion can be derived a second, related way. The beginning of the world is deducible since the alternative, a world of infinite duration, violates the law of non-contradiction; it necessitates an actual infinitude. If the world came into being in the beginning, however, the cause of its coming into being either: 1) requires a cause of its own; or 2) spans an infinite duration. Both alternatives, though, require an actual infinitude, either: 1) an infinite regress of efficient causes, or 2) an infinite accumulation of temporal units. Even though both alternatives result in a violation of the law of non-contradiction, the consequences of the two violations are quite different. The first case, an infinite regress of efficient causes, supposes an actual infinitude within the domain of being. This, in turn, infects being with the possibility of non-being (the possibility of that which is not possible) and results in logical anarchy. The law of non-contradiction must remain binding within the domain of being in order for rational predication to retain the sine qua non distinction between affirmation and denial.
The second case, an infinite accumulation of temporal units, would seem, at first glance, likewise to infect being with non-being–an infinite accumulation of any type constitutes an actual infinitude. However, there’s no need to locate (so to speak) this singular actual infinitude within the domain of being. If we suppose the cause of the world outside the domain of being, that First Cause becomes the non-being that accounts for being, the nihil by which and out of which being was created.
But therein lies another paradox. To absent the Creator from the domain of being is to remove Him from rational predication. We cannot speak of nihil as if it were bound by the laws of thought. Non-being comprises that which is not and cannot be. The latter qualification, that which “cannot be,” is crucial. The domain of non-being encompasses (again, so to speak) impossibility, the impossible reconciliation of contradictories. Non-being, in short, encompasses nothing.
The Creator, then, must be conceptualized as literally inconceivable. He is nothing, or “no thing,” in the sense that “thing-ness,” the starting point of every subsequent predication, cannot be predicated of Him. But that which is no thing is not: being itself cannot be predicated of Him, and therefore the laws of thought, which are invoked in every affirmation or denial, cease to refer. God becomes the squared-circle that we must posit to account for the logical plane of being. So, for example, the affirmation “God is eternal” is rendered absurd. Once the subject of a predication is absented from the domain of being, every affirmation can be simultaneously denied; hence, His “eternality” is reconcilable with its logical contradictory, “non-eternality.” God, in essence, can “be” both eternal and non-eternal at once–which effectively voids the initial predication of His eternality. Whatever is said is simultaneously unsaid. That “is” the nature of the non-being that preceded being, the nihil out of which creation was wrought.
The first sentence of Genesis, put forward as a rational proposition, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, seems, at first glance, to rule out the proposition God does not exist. But if God is absented from the domain of being, the two propositions become reconcilable. To deny God’s being is to deny His existence: He is not and cannot be. Yet only by the denial of God’s being can we begin to account for His creation, ex nihilo, of a finite temporal world.
Creation, furthermore, must be reconceived as more fundamental than the onset of the material world; it must be reconceived as the beginning of possibility, the initiation not only of whatever was, is, or will be, but also whatever can be. Ex nihilo creation is the creation of the laws of thought–manifest in things–the creation of the laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle. The laws of thought are changeless but not eternal. Prior to creation, no thing was possible. Nevertheless, from our own temporal point of view, God must be supposed prior to creation. Hence, the final paradox: On the one hand, God’s presence as the ex nihilo Creator of the being can be deduced from the first laws of thought and the relativity of time; on the other hand, God cannot “exist” either prior to or outside of being.
But to absent God from the domain of being is to declare an end to theology as a rational pursuit. That which is not and cannot be cannot be the subject of a logically binding predication. Just as a “sentient stone” isn’t an intelligible thing, because its definition affirms what it simultaneously denies, so too God, absented from being, becomes unintelligible. God’s non-being would permit the simultaneous affirmation and denial of a predicate–for example, His “omniscient ignorance” or “omnipotent powerlessness” or “omnipresent absence.” Nor can we even predicate qualities of God, as Thomas contends, in an “analogous sense” or “according to proportion” (ST 1a.13.5). Even though predication by analogy “leaves the thing signified as uncomprehended and as exceeding the signification of the name” (ibid.), predication of whatever kind still scales the subject to the laws of thought. The very act of predication is a de facto assertion of the being of the subject.
Human reason, of course, must continue to regard God as a thing–though “thing-ness” presupposes being. As Thomas himself notes, in the relationship between being and non-being, reason “apprehends non-being as an extreme” (ST 1a.13.7). That is, the rational mind attributes being to non-being in the process of thinking about it. Logically, this is illegitimate. Practically, it is unavoidable. For the moment we speak about God, the moment the word “is” enters the discussion, we engage absurdities. Provisional definitions, which are themselves affirmations, blur into their own logical contradictories, their own denials. Whatever God is, He simultaneously isn’t. The verb “to be” has been stretched too far.