Friday, October 26, 2012

Does desire generate thought, or thought generate desire?

We need to consider the relation, within the mind, between desires and thought. That relation should be the same as that between willing and understanding, since we generally think that willing is in accordance with our desires and with our loves and motivations: we will by means of desires. We also generally think that our understanding is in accordance with our thought: we understand by means of our thoughts and ideas.
But does desire generate thought, or thought generate desire, or neither?  There is room for debate on this, but there are psychological, philosophical and theological arguments to lead to the conclusion that it is desire which generates thought, rather than the opposite.
The psychological evidence stems from the fact that persons tend to think about what they want: their desires lead their dreaming, thinking, planning and eventually acting to get what they want. This suggests that desires generate the streams of thought that occur in the understanding, rather than that our thinking dictates what we want, love, or desire. Thought may influence what we desire but only by selection. Our thoughts select which desires can be feasibly brought nearer satisfaction.
Some will disagree, saying that it is primarily thought that makes our desire, and that we tend to desire things that we have thought up. This is true, but what is the causal determiner of what we think up?  Thoughts seem to pop into our heads, and thoughts about what we desire are much more likely to do so!  We interfere at this point sometimes and reject thoughts as unsuitable, but that rejection itself also requires motivation or desire. We do not clearly see our desires in our consciousness, but only our thoughts and actions, so we tend to forget about the essential role of dispositions and desires. How many times have we seen people, seeming to themselves to be rational, being driven by desires which they hardly acknowledge existing?
Philosophically, we could argue from the Aristotelian view that thought is the entertaining of the forms of things. Then, since forms themselves have no causal power, we could say that all the power must belong to whatever is doing the thinking and not to the thoughts themselves. This implies that thoughts themselves are not dispositions. The honor of being dispositions belongs to desires or loves. Desires are more similar to dispositions than are thoughts. It is dispositions (rather than forms) which are causally efficacious. 
This agrees in general with the analysis of Gilbert Ryle's 1949 book "The Concept of Mind". He argues that minds as a whole are akin to dispositions, and hence the actions of a person are the effects of those dispositions. He took this to imply materialism, but we will see later that other conclusions are possible, even preferable.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Pure Act or Pure Love: which better describes God?

Here is a selection of a my own comments following Edward Feser's post Is [the] God [of classical theism] dead? I continue trying to resolve some fundamental differences with the Thomists, but it was difficult. I wanted to give them a chance to defend in their best way.

I do not here include anyone else's replies. The links are to my comments.

First the existing argument from Thomas Aquinas (emphasis added):
“God brought things into being from no preexisting subject, as from matter…
    Now, the order that obtains between act and potentiality is this: although in one and the same thing which is sometimes in potentiality and sometimes in act, the potentiality is prior to the act, which however is prior in nature to the potentiality. Nevertheless, absolutely speaking, act is necessarily prior to potentiality. This is evident from the fact that a potentiality is not actualized except by a being actually existing. But matter is only potentially existent. Therefore, God who is pure act, must be absolutely prior to matter, and consequently the cause of it. Matter, then, is not necessarily presupposed for His action.
    Also, Prime matter in some way is, for it is potentially a being. But God is the cause of everything that is…Hence, God is the cause of prime matter—in respect to which nothing [else] preexists. The divine action, therefore, requires no preexisting matter” (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 2, Chapter 16).
If someone told you that being G was 'pure actuality', then you would think that it would be devoid of potentiality, capacity, power, and (hence) causal powers.

However, Feser claims about God that "it is precisely because He is pure actuality that He is the source of all causal (or actualizing) power." This is to repeat Aquinas' argument.

But I do not understand the inference here. There must be much more to God than 'pure actuality'. That does not seem to be a good characterization of his essence. What is missing? Can it be given a philosophical characterization (rather than by a theological accretion of attributes)?

I still have a problem, however, with the meaning of 'pure' in 'pure actuality'. (And how it is thereby supposed to refer to something essential about God.)

Normally, a 'pure A' means 'devoid of not-A'. Purely red means devoid of not red. Purely intellectual means devoid of not intellectual.

However, here, 'pure actuality' refers to something with no potentiality for changing itself, but still lots of power for changing other things. This does not seem to be a good sense of words. I am surprised that Aquinas uses it!

I agree that powers (whatever they may be) must be grounded in what exists. And that they cannot be grounded in 'pure potentiality'. From many examples, that is clearly ridiculous. I also agree that 'actuality' is practically synonymous what 'what exists'.

But then, how does the term 'pure actuality' get us close to identifying God? A god who is devoid of some potentialities (those for himself), but who is positively enthusiastic about other potentialities (those for others). Do you see the problem?

By 'potentiality' I refer to any capacity or power in onself to make a change, whether in the agent, or in another (patient).

I agree that god does not change himself. But, if he is defined as 'pure act' after Aquinas, is it possible for him to have in himself any powers to change others?
  • It cannot be because 'actual' means 'exist', since ordinary existing things are not sources of powers. 
  • It cannot be since god = pure actuality and god is the source, since i am asking an ontological question not a theological one. 
  • It cannot be because every coming-to-be requires an actual thing to do that, because that has nothing to do with where the powers originate. 
  • It cannot be because the original actual being can have no potentiality, since that directly blocks answering the question. 
I agree that a purely actual being will be devoid of all passive potencies. The question is, is it not, for the same reason, devoid of all active potencies as well?

I think of myself as a classic theist. I just think that Aquinas at various points was let done by the poor development of Aristotle's ontology (physics and metaphysics).

It you look at for example, at the first section discussing whether there is power in god (my subject above!), all the crucial steps are based on ideas of 'perfection' and 'fittingly', etc. Aquinas does not have the philosophical machinery to give a robust answer, so he wings it, in order to get to the right answer. (Most of his final answers are quite good: it is the logic in the middle that is poor).

A 'normal ontology' need not badly constrain God, if the ideas in it came from God in the first place. Since much religion is to get us to listen to God, we should not be afraid to use the ideas we get. (At least, then, they would be consistent)

Now I propose a resolution of this problem, by means of

Actual powers:

We take (at least for now) God to be immutable, in the sense that his essence is constant for all time. He never changes: he is famed for his constancy.
This implies that the essence as it actually exists at one time, exists as such for all times. It has NO potentiality to change himself. For these reasons, we may reasonably characterize God as 'purely actual'. Aquinas would define God as Pure Act, as our most direct description.

But we also take God as the source of all life, love, power and activity in the universe. He is essentially omnipotent. That is, it is from his own nature that God is the source of all power. But is this compatible with being purely actual?

Maybe we can resolve this by being clearer on what about God is purely actual? Some characterize God as 'love itself'.

Let us conceive of God as a 'fixed and immutable actual love'. 

Does that make sense? Does it help above? For our analysis, consider love as a specific kind of active power.

Certainly, a fixed and immutable love makes a good eternal essence for God. It makes sense for religion (find your own quotes). This love is always for others, so never changes itself: as we thought all along.

A God whose essence is love itself can then certainly give and share that love to creatures in the universe. This also makes sense for religion.

But a 'fixed actual love' is certainly not 'pure act' in the Aristotlean-Thomistic sense. Sorry about that, but tough for A-T ontology. It is a 'fixed energy source' (imagine your local star, for a metaphor). It is purely actual, with absolutely no passive powers, but is 'full' of active powers to create and share.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Evolution: God cannot create instant adults or species

There is continuing debate concerning whether God needs progressive stages in history to bring adults into life, or whether God has complete absolute omnipotence to create things immediately. This is sometimes taken as the dispute between evolution and creationism, but in reality the situation is more complicated (and interesting).

It is certainly true that traditional theism has emphasized the absolute omnipotence of God -- his unfettered sovereignty. And, not surprisingly, the atheists then have the same idea about that God which does not exist. One such as Jerry Coyne, for example, criticizes theistic support for slow evolution:
But if you didn’t know about evolution, and knew only about the Bible and the idea that God is omnipotent and omniscient, wouldn’t you have guessed a priori that if God brought all life into being, he’d do so via an instant miracle rather than by a 3.5-billion-year process of evolution on one planet out of billions in a single universe out of billions of universes?
A closer study of the basis of theism, however, shows that God is life itself, and that we must be conformed in suitable ways in order to receive that life. Furthermore, that life is only useful to us -- and good to receive -- if it appears to us as if it were our own. Otherwise it would appear to be imposed on us 'from outside', and we would not enjoy it, and maybe even reject it. These facts are simple features of the life that we have from God.

From this, we have to conclude that God can only create by progressive modifications. Something like evolution (or growth or development) is needed for humans, for species, for cultures, etc. Of course, this is not Darwinian evolution, since it is not changing merely by natural selection. Something we might call theistic selection is also involved, since fitness now depends not only on bodily activities, but on an internal conformity to the reception of life from God (who is life itself, as mentioned above).

I have discussed some of these issues in more detail in previous posts:
The point now is that we cannot defend theism from external critques, if we do understand properly the foundation and consequences of theism itself. That is why I advocate a Theistic Science as the name of developing this understanding. I write this blog, the book Starting Science from God, and for many years have maintained the website

Sometimes the correct ideas are presented (imo). The Biologos group, for example, has recently posted some observations on the theology of God with respect to the universe, under the heading "Why Should Christians Consider Evolutionary Creation?". Given this group's previous advocacy of natural selection is the 'source' of all biology, it is interesting to read:
Here are three examples of biblical attributes of God emphasized by studying evolutionary science:
  • God is extravagant. God did not create just one type of flower, but uses the system of evolution to create a huge variety of flowers, of every size, shape, color, and scent. As opposed to being “wasteful,” a biblical view of evolution helps us appreciate it as a pointer to the extravagance of God’s loving gift of life to the whole earth. God’s creation does not reflect a cold efficiency, but the transformation of such “waste” into worship, just as Jesus honored the woman who poured expensive perfume on his feet (Mark 14:3-9, John 12:3-8).
  • God is patient, and most often works gradually rather than instantaneously. In the natural world, we see God creating life over billions of years, not instantly, and grand geological processes playing out slowly over time, as well. Similarly, in the Bible we read of the centuries that passed between God’s covenant with Abraham and his covenant with David and the centuries more before Jesus appeared “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In individual lives, God often works by planting his Word deep in us and letting it grow slowly over time. God seems pleased with the slow but extraordinary unfolding of his universe, just as he is patiently unfolding his plan of redemption.
  • God is the provider. He provides for his creatures in each moment, giving them what they need to survive, adapt and thrive in communities of life. The Bible speaks of God feeding and caring for animals (Jonah 4:11, Psalm 104), and modern evolutionary science is shedding light on how God has arranged complex ecosystems that support many different kinds of creatures together. But God provides for his creatures even at the genetic level, giving species a measure of biological “creativity” to help them respond to new challenges. As biologist Richard Colling says, “Evolution is not about the imposition of death and destruction and survival of the fittest. Those things are a part of it, but not the main core of what evolution is. . . [The] evolutionary process of creating duplicate genes that give rise to new possibilities [is] redemption, it’s possibility, and it’s hope.”

These are also some of the consequences that come within theistic science. However, until more detailed reasons are given for these conclusions, and connections with other aspects of theism, they will not be convincing to everyone, let alone those who oppose theism