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Posts Tagged ‘possibility’

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So tot’s been putting off writing for a while because laziness, etc. But yesterday (?) I finished John W. Cooper’s Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, in which Cooper spends the majority of the book detailing panentheism in Western philosophy and theology, touching on a few also voices somewhat outside that tradition, and providing a Reformed, classical theist critique in the final chapter. The outlines are good, though, and Cooper admits this, the response is very short and you probably need another book in itself to offer any substantial critique of panentheism.

What is panentheism? Firstly, you may know pantheism, from pan, all, and theos, God. There is one reality (monism) named God or All, but they’re the same thing. Secondly, you may know classical theism. There is God, who exists on his own terms, infinite and uncreated, and there is creation/finitude, which comes from him. I understand it as dualistic (this isn’t always a swear word) in that there is the reality of God and the reality of creation (and a good classical theist would decry the Platonic assigning of spirit, mind, etc to the reality of God; they are, indeed, created things). In contrast, panentheism, all-in-Godism, lets God have his creation, and eat it too. I understand it as monistic: There is the one reality of God and all things are in him, yet the two are ontologically distinct. God is not all things; he is more. All things are not God; they are much less. Yet they exist in the one reality, here God. Cooper does not employ monism and dualism as straightforwardly as I have done here. So if I have been bad, I invite you to smack my hand.

Famous panentheists include Hegel, Teilhard, Whitehead, Tillich, Moltmann, Pannenberg (so Cooper argues), Ruether, McFague, and many more! It is yet too early for me to pick a team, but there are definitely some things about panentheism that appeal to me. One is this notion of “true infinity.” If God is infinite then a panentheist would argue that he cannot be infinite in contrast to the finite because this would bound the infinite and it would no longer be a true infinite. God as infinite therefore includes the finite within him. Cooper writes on Nicolas of Cusa: “Whereas classical theism protects the God-world distinction by opposing the infinite and finite, the absolute and relative, and other such antithetical qualities, Nicholas argues that the truly infinite must include both sides of these polarities” (Location 988-990). If in the beginning God is all there is, and this All is a powerful All, how can All create something whose existence is outside of it? Where did he place us if there was no outside in which to place us? Indeed, we are created ex nihilo, but we do not persist in nihilo because we would never start existing. We would need to be brought into the one reality who is God.

A problem arises, however. If God is both good and All, whence cometh evil? I think a panentheist could still maintain this if they distinguished between the actuality and possibility of evil in God. In himself God is not actually evil. Agreeable. Yet I tread carefully here. Is it possible that God can do evil? I cannot say. Yet evil comes with creation. It is possible for created things to do evil, so in a removed sense, God is somehow primordially related to evil through possibility. And if you’re in the Augustinian tradition you might quip that it’s a necessary possibility on account of creaturely freedom. In the scheme of panentheism, God creates out of nothing that for which evil is a possibility and he sustains it in the one reality which is himself.

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I just realised that there was a fatal flaw in the reasoning of my last post. By positing all possibilities as actuality in the way I described, I implied that all possibilities are eventually fulfilled. But if possibilities are only actual insofar as they are fulfilled then this leads to a very fatalistic understanding of time, because there are no possibilities other than what will be! I wish to maintain that possibility is actual in that it takes place within actuality, that which is.

Nevertheless, the possibility — and this is perhaps an unnecessary, tautologous qualification, but — the potential of that possibility should be distinct from its fulfillment. So, possibility as a whole encompasses actuality insofar as it is rooted in the present, that which could be, potential, but the totality of possibility maintains one foot outside of actuality, in non-being. An unfulfilled possibility which is no longer possible remains in history as a historical possibility, so in this case it has being, actuality, yet it never found completeness and thus remains forever as … half-being? (Though, of course, this is only if viewed in totality. The potential and fulfillment, and whatever other parts make up this possibility can be seen each as having respectively a being and non-being (or being if this is made reference to) fully in themselves). This can be illustrated with reference to an illustration from an earlier post. I have not yet learned to distinguish between probability and possibility, though in a literal sense the former appears much more biased! Arguendo I’ll equate them. If something has a 0.5 probability of coming into being, then, my lack of experience with probability notwithstanding, I assume that the possibility of being or non-being is equal. However if the probability is 1 then there is no possibility, only necessity, let’s say of being. Likewise, for 0, there is only necessity of non-being. Possibility, as it views from the perspective of the not yet, is awkwardly and beautifully thrust between being and non-being.

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Recently, in using the terms actuality, possibility, and necessity, I’ve run into a problem. The problem is that I cannot compare that which is possible with that which is actual because the possible is contained in the actual. More on this presently! I like to start from the start with these things mostly because I’m too lazy to do any background reading, but (small) partly because I’d like to understand my own thinking before developing it dialectically.

I’ll focus just on the relationship between possibility and actuality because the reader can make the further necessary connections. I cannot exclude possibility, that which could be, from actuality, that which is, because possibility is based in the actual, defined in relation to it. Additionally, similarly, etc, the only thing outside of actuality is that which is not because actuality encompasses all that is. Possibility is not that which is not but that which is not yet. It only escapes actuality by virtue of time and time is actual. It is a weak actuality that is only defined by the present, because the present is propelled by the past and pulled by the future. Thus actuality encompasses all that was, is, and will be. Possibility is actuality.

How then can we speak of a possibility which has not yet been actualised/realised? We falter in our terms. Possibility is always actual, but its mode differs according to where it occurs in time. When possibility is viewed in the present, in a vulgar sense it has not been actualised. Yet it is actual. And when it eventually is vulgarly actualised, it remains actual. Since they are both actual, real, etc, maybe they could be named with reference to time, so the former present possibility and the latter future possibility. Or more simply, can we speak of unfulfilled and fulfilled possibility?

One final thought on imagined possibility. Just because something is imagined as possible, it doesn’t necessarily make it possible. The imagining remains actual as an imagining, but not as a possibility. Possibility isn’t contingent on an observer.

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See also Everything is impossible if you put your mind to it

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One of my recent posts explored the possibility of God’s particularity. With some more time to think about it, I was assailed by a host of further thoughts yesterday at the laundromat. I’ve never had so much fun waiting for my undies to get clean. Before starting, I should mention that this is really just a bit of fun, although it would be awesome to explore it properly one day. I’m constrained firstly by my classical approach, employing Greco-German categories. If anyone can figure out a way of looking at this sideways then I heartily welcome you. Secondly, although research would undoubtedly be helpful, this is a lazy attempt to create my own solutions and problems to problems and solutions I have come across where I may very well be misrepresenting the concepts so much that I am in actuality saying nothing. Onwards!

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Is God particular or universal? Clearly it would be helpful to first define these two terms. If I’m right, a universal is that which encompasses a set of particulars. So I can say that a particular friend is a friend only with reference to the concept of friendship, though that friend is only a particularised expression of that universal. They are not equal to friendship but occupy some part of it. However, friendship is not the universal, that is, not all things can be defined as a part of friendship. It is therefore necessary to find a universal which encompasses both friendship and that which is not friendship. This is probably an imperfect suggestion but we’ll roll with it for example’s sake: Love. Is it possible to say that love is a universal as all things friendship and all things romance, though they cannot be completely referred to each other, can both be completely referred to love? (For example’s sake just say yes. Thanks). And onwards until all things are under one universal. It might be being. All things are. So love and hate, for example, are particulars of the universal being because they both exist.

The problem with being as the universal (and here’s where some Heidegger or Hegel would have probably helped me!) is that it excludes non-being, that which is not. But in that case, how can non-being even be referenced? If there is nothing then there is nothing to reference. Being is the universal for all that is. It sounds too simple. Non-being, paradoxically is being. It is potential being, possibility. Non-being exists, for example, as that which can be thought or posited though it does yet exist. But not only is its possibility in human reason but in all that is becoming. When being through becoming moves towards non-being then that non-being is actualised into being. Thus being is a universal insofar as non-being is exists within it as possibility.¹

In sum, being is the universal; all else, in reference to being without exhausting its totality, is particular.

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God, then, must be defined in terms of the universal as he encompasses all things and all things have their being in him. The first difficulty with this is that if God is free and sovereign then is he constrained by his being, thus negating these, or does he choose it freely, which apparently would first require being…? In other words, to define God in terms of being is to reduce him to something, so that this designation is always provisional.

If God is universal then whence cometh creation? Creation is a collection of particularities which occupies a space on God’s universality. The problem with this is that creation as finite occupies the spatio-temporal whereas God occupies the eternal. If creation operates within time then when in eternity did God create? If creation operates within space then where in eternity did God create? In creation, God moves from being to becoming. God as the I am, changeless and eternal, brings change and temporality through the act of creation, birthing a history to accompany his being. God as being, all that there is, brings non-being into being, and it occupies a space. This is the pantheistic problem: That which is not is brought into being to occupy a space within/outside all that is (God). How can God, when he is all that there is, bring that which is not him into being? The only, probably heretical, suggestion I have is that God withdraws from or extends a part of himself and calls it not-God.

Both further create the problem that being moves into becoming, and becoming is a problem because it is change. If God is being then at what point (there is no point!) does he become? But if God is eternally becoming then this is essential to his nature and is not change. God’s becoming is rooted in his being, which always is, and thus he is changeless. As Anti-Climacus put it: “The being of God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means the being of God.”² If only being then there would be no possibility, only actuality. Possibility requires becoming. This nuances the main problem with God as particular: At any given time not all things make reference to him; there is that which is outside of him. But this is God only as actuality; as regards possibility he is a universal because all things are possibile, yet he is in actuality possibility so that, paradoxically, as regards his actuality he is both universal and particular.

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Here are some further thoughts, addressing mainly the problem of sin in terms of what has just been stated. God creates in freedom. He is under no necessity to create but enters into necessity through the act of creating. As Hosea records, the dual pain and love of God:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

(Hosea 11:5-9).

Israel has forsaken Yahweh so he too will forsake them. But even after the hurt they have caused him he cannot give them up. In creating, God limits himself to a necessity within that creation, the necessity to care for it and even depend upon it. Ostensibly the freedom to forsake creation is ever-present, but, rather, God has already forsaken his freedom through the choice to create. In creation he loves and cannot do otherwise. God freely creates and creation freely loves him.

For creation to love freely there must be the possibility of not loving, which is not in accordance with God’s will, and therefore sin. God cannot sin because sin is that which is against his will. He can do all things but none of them are sin because he only does what he wills. In creation, however, God enters into covenant, a covenant inherent to the act of creation itself. God loves his creation and is thus obligated to it. He does not sin, but that which he does in accordance with his will is not only understood on his own terms but mediated through creation. No interaction with creation is sin yet creation may ask him otherwise. He freely forsakes his will that creation may take some part in it. This is prayer, the construction of God’s will mediated through his creation. Creation, however, sins because he has given it freedom to do so. It is not himself that sins but that which is not-God, which has been given a share of God’s freedom yet acts otherwise to this freedom.

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¹It is very optimistic of me to suggest that all non-being can be actualised. As this is all speculative at this point, this definition excludes that which can never be actualised. Yet if it cannot be actualised it probably cannot exist as possibility either (imagination doesn’t count, contra Anselm!).

²Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

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At an experiential level, free will will always be easy to argue for. Then people start reflecting, they see the world as cause and effect and realise that determinism is easier to argue for. Then they realise also that the way they experience life can not so easily be discounted. Free will still exists, but not as true freedom; it is subordinated into a happy illusion that hides our dark chains to causality.

I here present no argument for existence as truly free. In another post I have even discussed some impossibility around imagining this. But work with this assumption here for a moment. If freedom is just a shadow of some deeper truth in a determined world (where we don’t actually exist, but are just an expression of the existing whole), what if this deeper truth of everything being already determined is just a shadow of something even more eternal, something yet more foundational, an existence that is truly free? I’m not qualified to qualify my speculation with any spectacular argument. I can only examine the operative value of each view.

If free will is an illusion then it’s not one that we’re not happy to live with. How many people choose, after becoming aware of their determined existence, to live accordingly? You cannot live accordingly. You live as you have always lived, and revel in it, because your false freedom is the consolation of your true unfreedom. Free will as an experiential illusion is a friendly gesture from existence to deal with your true bondage.

If, however, we accept the inevitability of our every action and begin to live a life more conscious of this bondage then our days quickly become shorter and our nights longer. The illusion of causality greedily hides from us our true freedom. Check out this quote I recently came across:

If an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophe, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is inevitable. It is thus the event’s actualization — the fact that it takes place — which retroactively creates its necessity.

(Jean-Pierre Dupuy, cited by Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ, p.77).

To paraphrase, as we approach events that are ahead of us in time, there are infinite possibilities concerning how the event could pan out. But if we reflect on events already past then all possibility disappears. There is no “I could have saved some extra money for the bus ride home”. No, you couldn’t have. You couldn’t have because you didn’t. And now you have to walk home. As soon as you do something, the doing of that thing, its actualisation, means there is no fantasy ‘otherwise’. The only reason you couldn’t have not spent your money is because there is now no possibility for you to go back in time and choose differently; the passing of time fully consolidates your actions and makes any other possibility impossible. The only possibility now is ahead of now, in future.

Not going to happen.

Yet causality does not stop there. It creeps also into present and future. Once you make the same mistake more than once, you face the possibility that your lack of freedom exists not only behind you but also ahead of you. This is a passing thought. Then one day you come face to face with your unfreedom in the present. Now is the time when you will need those coins for the bus ride home. You know this. You will not make the same mistake again. Yet you choose to make this mistake again. You squander your last silver on whatever it is that forfeits your ride home. The logic of past necessity has crept into your present, and it has not long to take your future also. If I have done this in the past, if I choose to do it also now, though I could choose otherwise but do not choose because I also cannot, then it is likely that I will choose to do so likewise in the future.

I’m pretty sure I started this post with some conclusion in mind, but I’ll finish on that depressing note until something returns…

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In my yet tiny survey of continental philosophy I’ve now and again encountered the dichotomy of possibility and necessity. A corrupt definition may be something like possibility being that which could be and necessity being that which must be. But notice my imposition of time onto the definition, even if I change tense. Maybe there’s a simple definition of possibility and necessity that goes beyond something which could have or must have been. Notice also that could be and must be can be used in reference to present or future? But there are further imperfections in the choice of language. To say that something must be is not pure necessity; there is a tinge of possibility in the word must. Pure necessity is better represented by is. Something that is is much more necessary than something that must be, and with that the shortcomings of necessity as a word are also exposed: The purest necessity actually is actuality, because something that is actual is ironically more necessary than something that is necessary.

But here also time confuses things. Is only makes sense in English when used in the present. To describe something necessary in the future we can say that it will be, but we have no designation for actuality in the future. This is probably because our conception of time doesn’t allow for actuality in the future. The future by definition, in referring to something that will be, necessitates that something to not be presently. For example, to say that Terminator II is an awesome movie and it will still be awesome in the future requires us to differentiate between present awesome and future awesome, although they may be qualitatively identical. Because there is a future for the awesomeness of Terminator II to not yet be means that presently Terminator II is not future-awesome, but only present-awesome. Time has required awesomeness to make reference to it, a kind of acknowledging of the sponsors. Terminator II is always awesome. If something is, then it always is.

Even simply prefixing is with always, however, makes it impotent. Always, though expressing it means there is no operating exception, necessitates the possibility of an exception. To say something always is is to defend it against the accusation of sometimes-not-is, sometime-past-not-is (not-was-is) and sometime-future-not-is (not-will-be-is). The only half-satisfactory word for actuality in English is is, and it must be expressed without qualifiers, in its pure isness.

This kind of thinking has probably led some theologies to conclude that God is outside of time. Take for example this verse from the psalms:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

(Psalm 90:1-2 NIV).

The psalmist contrasts their human conception of temporal linearity (Before the mountains were born) with a transcendent conception of God (you are God). God’s actuality cannot be diminished by any idea of past, present, future, yet his actuality, his isness, is poetically intertwined with our understanding of time.

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Actuality is purest necessity. What is pure possibility? Possibility I have found to be a much harder concept than necessity. It requires a much more violent overhaul of language than a definition of pure necessity. If we can constrain must be by naming it is, what can we do to free could? There is some necessity in saying that you could be a closet appreciator of geraniums. The necessity exists in another possibility: In postulating your abominable appreciation of geraniums I make reference to the possibility that you are indifferent to them, or better, despise them. These examples might be more comprehensible with numbers. Say there is a 0.98 probability/possibility that you could appreciate geraniums. The other 0.02 denotes the infinite number of ways in which you couldn’t. To say could recognises this other possibility, the 0.02, as a necessity which holds it back from being pure possibility. Notice how probability restricts us from understanding pure possibility. To say either there is a 1 or a 0 probability that you enjoy geraniums is to lean very heavily into actuality. At both ends of the scale of possibility there is only actuality.

There exists no opposite of is. Something can not-is, be non-existent, but non-existence is a form of actuality. There is no freedom in is, nor is there in not-is. Does the lack of a kind of superlative for could indicate a lack of imagination on part of the English language? Can we imagine a condition of complete freedom, or is our freedom always understood in reference to that which is not free?

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