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.


  1. Have you any idea how many times I have to read this stuff to make sense of it? (My problem, not yours, Feser's, Aquinas', Ben Yakov's et al, I do realize.)

    Anyway ... the difference I think I see between Feser ("Naturally, then, to be fully actual (as the God of classical theism is) can hardly intelligibly be said to be less than being alive. On the contrary, it is to be more than the sort of thing we are insofar as we are alive. It is to be that of which our living is but a finite approximation.") and you is that you see human life as directly from God and Feser sees our life as an approximation of God's life. You have us as having life as a gift that we may or may not be able to use. Feser has us as trying to approximate God's life, which has us sort of intellectually independent from God, vainly trying to be more like Him. Hey - vainly in both ways.

    I'm so glad to see someone else doubting Thomism.
    In your first bullet, is the word supposed to be "not": It cannot be because actual means exist, since ordinary existing things are to sources of powers. (... things are not sources of powers.)?

    1. You are probably right about the way many think, as being intellectually independent of God.

      Fixed the first bullet:
      It cannot be because 'actual' means 'exist', since ordinary existing things are not sources of powers.

    2. >Feser has us as trying to approximate God's life, which has us sort of intellectually independent from God, vainly trying to be more like Him. Hey - vainly in both ways.

      Nonsense Feser doesn't do that at all.