Tuesday, May 29, 2012

God is Being itself: the ‘I am’

Let is continue further into theistic science: the theory of what we can know about God and how God relates to the universe. Two previous postulates are listed here: that God exists and that God is One. Now we coming to the next step in setting out the basis of theism: this is:
Postulate 3  God is Being Itself. 
This postulate immediately puts God in a different ontological status compared with us. We are beings, but we are not being itself. That God has that special status is distilled from Judaism in the saying that God is “I Am” (Exodus 3:14), and, from Christianity, in similar statements by Jesus (John 8:58). This distillation has long been part of classical theism. God is Necessary in comparison to us mortals who are contingent. God can thus be the necessarily-existing original cause of any finite thing that comes into being.  Before considering the consequences of this postulate, let us make sure we understand it in more detail:

Assertions that ‘God is X itself’

Postulate 3 is the first in a series of claims that God is X itself. Here X is ‘being’, while other features (such as ‘love’, ‘life’ and ‘wisdom’) will be attributed later. Such assertions have important roles in theistic metaphysics, and these roles need to be defined explicitly.

Consider a generic assertion of the form “Object G is X itself”. It first implies that, if G exists, it has description X necessarily. It is then part of its nature that G does not merely have description X, but that it does so at all times and in all counterfactual circumstances originating at any time. This does not imply immutable or fixed existence, only that property X is attributed at all times. That is a minimal requirement for any kind of eternal existence, though the actual manner or form of existence could be variable or fluctuating as long as it is always present.

A second component is to state that such a G is not an X exactly like other objects which are Xs, but that G is still essentially involved in the way they are Xs. Here, for example, God is not a ‘being’ precisely like the rest of us are beings, yet (as being itself) God is intimately involved in the way we are beings. God is still a being and still exists but in a different way then we.

From the existence of X-itself, we may deduce that every instance of X is either
(a) identical to X-itself, or
(b) dependent on X-itself. 
We conclude that if an object with property X exists completely independently (or ‘in itself’), then it must be identical to X-itself, since (by construction) it cannot be dependent on anything apart from itself. The present case, with X=being and God as being itself, implies that any existing object is either identical to God or dependent on God. If anything exists at all, we could conclude that God exists, but we already postulated that in Postulate 1. What this postulate adds is that God exists eternally and necessarily.

You may dispute these kinds of arguments. You could ask: since this stone is brown, does that mean that brownness-itself exists?  Does redness-itself exist?  Or evil-itself, since there are many things thought to be evil?  And if redness-itself did not exist, why is being-itself treated differently in theism?  Theists reply that our argument for X-itself existing is not valid for every X. The argument depends on Postulate 3 for X=being and on later postulates for other Xs. These Postulates are not logically necessary for every possible X.

Alternatively, you could argue that since this stone is a being, and since God is being itself, we should conclude that this stone is God. Theists do not deny the validity of an argument like this. They insist only that it proceeds if the stone is in fact being, itself. That is: the argument is only valid if stones exist independently, eternally and necessarily, since being itself is eternal and necessary. Theists agree that if atoms in the world exist eternally and immutably then they could be said to have or be being itself. In that case, on the basis of Postulate 3 at least, they could be identified with God. This is the sense in which the atomic materialist makes atoms into his God. But we will understand theism differently.

Adapted from chapter 8 of Starting Science From God.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Can we know the nature of God?

There are several ways of describing how much we can know about God.
1. Apophatic or ‘negative theology’: We can know nothing of the true Divine nature.
2. Cataphatic or ‘positive theology’: We can know something of the nature of God.

Within the positive approach, there are two options:
2a. Our knowledge refers only by analogies
2b. Our knowledge (at least in part) does truly refer to God.

1. Apophatic Theology
One well-established religious tradition—apophatic or ‘negative theology’—that refuses to make statements about Divinity. This is the via negativa.
This is almost self-contradictory, like saying "Nothing can be known about God". Not even that statement itself!

2a. Knowledge by Analogies
There have historically been many analogies for how we might be related to the divine, and the bible is nearly full of metaphorical descriptions of divine and spiritual things.

Aquinas uses the negative approach in part when he says that common terms such as ‘life’, ‘wisdom’, even ‘existence’ can only be applied to God analogically. He combines the via negativa with an analogical account of the way we know God. According to him, God does not have wisdom but has something analogous to wisdom. We talk about love with humans and love with God, but these are not strictly the same thing. Rather, God has something that is like the love that we know. It is sufficiently like love that we do call it love, but it is strictly distinct. Terms in his theology are not univocal, but analogous. According to Aquinas, this is all that can be given.

This would make establishing a theistic science difficult. None of the terms we might want to use in our arguments actually refers properly to God under the negative or analogical traditions. I, therefore, do not follow it.

2b. Unequivocal Knowledge
Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was one opponent of Aquinas on this issue. Scotus holds, for example, that ‘being’ is a univocal notion applicable to everything that exists without restriction. This to return to the position of Parmenides, for whom being is the central concept. According to Scotus, we should be able to unequivocally describe God with terms such as being, love and wisdom. Scotus’ view has become the dominant view in later Western history, and we will need it within theistic science. That is, we should try to avoid using analogies at the most fundamental level of explanation.

So I will attempt to form a cataphatic or positive theology and one, moreover, in which we can actually describe God to some extent.

I want to start with whatever can be truly attributed to God and then use well-specified analogies and similarities to deduce what attributes can then be truthfully attributed to us. I believe we have sufficient concepts given to us via revelation that we can make statements about God that are mostly true. We do not, of course, claim to make statements about all of an infinite God. We only claim that our terms do properly refer to God and at least approximately describe the nature of God.

That should not blind us, however, to the crucial role of analogies in learning new ideas concerning nature and divinity. In fact, some analogies are so important that they link not just our ideas, but also nature and divinity themselves. We call these relations correspondences. Later I will discuss how such relations are more than analogies and how they are important descriptions of structures and dynamics within theism. And, using theistic science, we will unequivocally describe things related by such correspondences and then see why the various analogies do hold. In this way we will have the univocal language of Scotus, while simultaneously agreeing with Aquinas that particular analogies are essential to understanding the relations between divinity and created things.

Adapted from chapters 7 and 11 of Starting Science From God.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is God physical?

The God of theism supports nature and can act within nature. Does that make God natural or even physical? How do we know God is 'beyond nature', in order to be come supernatural?  If we think that everything that has a physical effect is itself physical, then God would be physical.

We rightly think that everything has a nature, namely a description of its substance and of all its essential properties and powers. In agreement with this general sense of the word ‘nature’, Aristotle's original Greek meaning of ‘physical’ is that which has its source of change within itself. If theism is true, and God is the source of our life and therefore the only thing with life in itself, then, strictly speaking, only God is physical!    In this line of thought, Victor Reppert posts
I wouldn't even necessarily call God supernatural. There could conceivably be a science studying God's actions, based on which we could make predictions. If God would let us, we could even perform experiments on Him. What's wrong with this idea?
Actually, if you say that what we mean by supernatural is that it won't fit in to a mechanistic order, then of course God is supernatural. That's how Lewis defined it. But does everyone understand the term "supernatural" in that way? It seems like a lot of baggage is brought into the use of this term.
Aristotle's aim was to distinguish it from what is artificial, which are those things that have sources of change outside themselves.  Applying this principle as above would make all of the the rest of us beings as therefore ‘artificial’ (in some sense).

Some people do indeed view the world as an artificial tool or instrument of God, like a musical instrument which God plays to make music (us). Some think of God as like the author of a book in which are the 'artificial' characters, as I discussed previously.

However, this is not the everyday use of these terms. Since we commonly use the word ‘naturalistic’ or ‘physical’ to describe the basic sciences of today, we need to invent a new name such as ‘generalized-natural’ or ‘generalized-physical’ for the above sense of everything with a source of change within itself.

A ‘generalized physics’ would be the study of those things, and, when theism is assumed true, it will coincide with our theistic science. Both will be the study of everything that has a causal influence on the things in our world. In another variation on definitions, some philosophers define “physical things [as] those things that are postulated by a complete physics.” Theists claim that this must refer to the generalized sense of ‘physical’ which includes minds and even God.

So I am not going to use such a 'generalized' terminology, delightful though it may be.

I am therefore going to use ‘nature’ to refer to what is currently known as physical, including all material things and also whatever virtual or pre-geometric processes may be surmised in quantum gravity. Then, everything natural may be taken as itself dead and not living, however active or ‘subtle’ it may be. We will later see that natural things are energized and enlivened by something spiritual within them, but we will never need to identify spiritual as the ‘inmost of the physical’ and hence itself essential natural. The term physical, as I and most people use it, excludes what is mental or spiritual. And, of course, I will have to explain how they are related.

Adapted from chapter 7 of Starting Science From God.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Can we understand Theism scientifically?

Many people think that science and religion are completely separate activities, as Galileo did when he exclaimed , “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go!” Steven Jay Gould more recently took science and religion to be "Non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). That is one way for accommodating religion to science.

Religions, however, should (and most do) make claims about what exists (God, spirituality, etc.), and how what exists  influences our life. Let us call theism the knowledge of the claims about the reality of God as made by religion, or presupposed by religion. I want to concentrate here on the core claims that are central to religion, and to focus on monotheism.  And I want to elucidate those claims in a rational manner. This is to take theism just like a scientific theory, and spell out & explain its basic principles as clearly as possible.

That there is a God, and that God is One, are the primary assumptions of a rational monotheism:
Postulate 1  God exists.
Postulate 2  God is One.
These are the postulates needed for further constructive work in theistic research. Not everyone may be willing to make such assumptions. The a-theist, for example, assumes that God does not exist. He or she is free to do that, to make that hypothesis, to see what further ideas follow, and to see what explanations may be produced. In our investigation, however, we begin with the theistic postulates above. May the best explanation win.
Such a pair of postulates is not enough to generate deductions and is hence nowhere near enough to produce all the explanations that we seek. We need to combine it with further postulates to be described later. 
Discussions with friends have shown me that there are many differences and uncertainties concerning theism. Even within theology the question of the powers of natural objects has been commonly divorced from the question of how God sustains those objects in existence. Because I understand that the behavior of objects does depend on the details of theism and on how they are sustained in existence, I will now present expositions to elucidate the needed principles of theism. The primary function of these posts is to outline the core principles that will be needed as foundations for the later scientific theorizing. The postulates listed are not arbitrary but were carefully chosen from what I think of as ‘vanilla theism’. These are the core beliefs of the main theistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Those are the three religions or peoples of the Book’. Those religions often make further additional assumptions that are not shared by all. Sometimes I may append brief mentions of the content of those additional ideas, but I do not have the space in this book to explore all their separate consequences.
The core beliefs of philosophical theism are typically that God is eternal, infinite, necessary, one, immutable, impassible, transcendent and immanent. Then, for religious purposes at least, we add that God is good, loving, a divine person, worthy of worship, worthy of praise, righteous, just, awe-inspiring, and always merciful and forgiving. However, it is not entirely clear how these last attributes are related together or even how they follow from the first (philosophical) group of attributes. A difficulty for many people is that the philosophical attributes above hardly allow that God be living. That is because it is doubtful that an ‘immutable, impassible One’ can be loving and merciful. God may well be both, we believe, but the rational understanding of the connection is weak.
The coming postulates are chosen, therefore, to emphasize the life and loving nature of God. They assert that God is eternal, infinite and transcendent, but insist, in addition, that God is living and that God is loving. These postulates about life and love are certainly not known a priori. The philosophical proofs of the existence of God never conclude by proving those particular hypotheses about the living nature of God. Nevertheless, they are core and central beliefs of religious theism. I strongly believe that they come come from revelations from God. I believe that God’s input into the religious books over the last several thousand years has lead to a general awareness that God is living and loving. He is living and loving in his Divine way, a way that we forever struggle to understand.
I am not going to discuss particular revelations or particular books because I believe that the core claims to be made can be distilled from religious thought. Let us therefore continue with introducing the core theistic postulates to see what can thereby be derived as a basis for the principles of our world.
Adapted from chapter 7 of Starting Science From God.