Saturday, 11 January 2014

Three ultimate metaphysical explanations: infinite regress; mind of God; It Just Is


Infinite regress

Modern (secular) science tends to see things in terms of an infinite regress - but this is implicit, demonstrated by how scientists behave and not by their expressed beliefs.

Infinite regress means that A was caused by B which was caused by C - and so on forever.

This is very much a linear and causal view - linear causality is the primary metaphysical assumption about the nature of reality. 

This is of course paradoxical, since if there were an infinite number of previous causes, then it would take eternity for them to operate - so nothing could ever be caused.

However, all ultimate explanations are paradoxical - so it is not as if there was any non-paradoxical alternative.


Mind of God

Mainstream Christan theology takes the (ultimately Platonic) attitude that the ultimate explanation is the mind of God - God's will, God's decision.

This is regarded as inexplicable, because in this conception of God He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent - causes everything and thus sustains the universe, and is free of all passions, impassive, unchanging - yet, somehow, Loves us and we are supposed to Love (as well as worship) Him.

(To worship and fear such a concept of God is easy; to Love Him and believe He Loves us - especially given that He is directly responsible for - wills - absolutely everything that happens... well that is not so easy.)

So asking about the ultimate cause of A may be followed by B and C but does not go on forever - sooner or later the causes come to terminus in the mind of God, in the uncaused direct will and action of God.


For this view, everything is necessary - absolutely everything.

Nothing could be other than as it is.

(Which leaves no space, not one Angstrom of space, for real, actual, free will. So Christianity is impossible...) 

But this is not really an explanation - rather it is a limit to explanation. A stop sign.

So there is a paradoxical quality about using the mind of God as the ultimate explanation - especially for a Christian.


It just is

But there is another alternative, seldom given much attention but in fact the one to which I adhere; and which is the pluralist alternative; and it is like the mind of God explanation except that ALL causal pathways do NOT return to the mind of God, but some of them terminate in 'It Just Is'.

So some 'A's do have a line of causality leading back to the mind of God (to God's uncaused will and action). But other A, B, C sequences terminate in the assumption that that Just Is 'how things are' and presumably 'always have been' - in other words the nature of reality.

Therefore, two classes of explanation: two types of ultimate cause - God, and It Just Is...

(Implying a reality which contains God, rather than being contained-by God).


On this view, some things are ultimately caused by God, and other things are not.

(Some things are Good, and other things are not - either being neutral, such as forces and laws of nature and substance; or evil, which means anti-Good, destructive of Good.)

Reality is therefore not ultimately a harmony or stasis; but instead some kind of dynamic conflict or process, between ultimate realities, ultimate causes (of which God is one); there is 'opposition in all things'.


Another way to contrast the mind of God from It Just Is, is to consider the origin of Forms.

Most philosophical and scientific analyses necessarily assume forms are real, and lie behind appearances. This applies to Plato and even more to Aristotle, to Thomism, is a recurrent and continuous feature of science (especially biology), and has reappeared in our time in the work of Rupert Sheldrake.

(The modern theory of evolution by natural selection depends utterly on assumptions about form, but its flaw is that it cannot see this, and denies and ridicules such discourse. Hence form is an unexamined assumption of natural selection, shaping all discourse but opaque to perception.)


But where do the forms come from?

The two answers are essentially: 1. They are present in, and a decision of, the mind of God (Aristotle, Aquinas); or 2. They Just Are (which has been the implicit view of most scientists interested in form, including Sheldrake.)

But how do we know about forms, how do we know how many there are and their characteristics, how can we detect a form or decide what form applies in a particular situation?

If forms come from the mind of God then we can assume God plants the necessary knowledge in our own minds (the view of Aristotle and Aquinas).


But if forms Just Are, then how would we know about them? And how could disputes about form be settled (even in theory) when there was any disagreement about the number, nature, identity, characteristics of form?

For the Just Is understanding, the implication is that we know about things like form partly by them being built-into us, by necessity - since these things are ultimate causes; partly by revelation from God.

But then how does God know?


I think the implication is that God must himself be a kind of philosopher and historian and scientist.

He is Himself one of the ultimate realities - but knows about the other ultimate realities only conjecturally; in terms of unrefuted hypotheses that seem to work.

So, God created (shaped, ordered) the universe, and knows what it is to work-with the ultimate realities - but He does not (on this view) know their number and nature directly or for certain.

He knows far, far, far better than we do what are the nature of the ultimate realities (perhaps matter, and the forces and laws of the universe, and the ultimate forms), because of his vastly greater (to put it mildly!) experience; but He does not know in the way a God who is himself everything would know about what went on inside himself.


The infinite regress view is respectable among scientists, and the God's mind view is respectable among philosophers and mainstream among Christian theologians - both are respectable despite having big, big, BIG paradoxes and problems.

So also does It Just Is have paradoxes and problems. But It Just Is does have has the BIG advantages (for a Christian) of leaving space for real free will, and also distinguishing between the ultimate origins of Good and evil.

But, at any rate, some people - and I am one, and many tribal peoples and probably most children are others, are apparently satisfied to stop asking for further explanations when they reach something they can believe Just Is...

...The universe has always been, it has always had this stuff in it, the stuff has always operated and reacted and moved in this way and by these rules; God has always been, and we humans have always been and we always will be (some kind of thread of consciousness extending back in time forever, perhaps very thin at times but never severed, always continuous) - But we have changed; and we continue to change, according to the constraints of the stuff and the rules and in love and obedience to God; who, as Father and of his Goodness, shaped us and gave us self-awareness, personhood, godhood; all ultimately because we Just Are, God Just Is, and we and God lived and live among many other things that Just Are.



Thursday said...

Again, the problem with the limited god of pluralism, is that there just isn't much need to bother with him. You still haven't explained why anybody should worship him. The fact that pluralism may, may make it easier to love god doesn't get around this problem. If God isn't God anymore, who cares?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - I can't put everything in one post - this one was already very long!

There are several answers - all true, but answering in different ways.

1. You need to decide which is most important to a Christian: Love or Power. (Seems to me the answer is clear!). If you will only worship *absolute* power, and are not going to put Love first, then there is the other major monotheism waiting for you.

2."why anybody should worship him" - is just a *silly* comment from an empirical and historical perspective, because that is precisely the kind of highest God (or plurality of gods) which almost everybody throughout history and even in the world today actually *does* worship.

3. But there is a legitimate metaphysical point as well. No metaphysical assumption stands alone, but they come in families and support each other - and in this instance 'families' is the operative word.

We should worship God because he is our Father.

(And this also defines something about the nature of what 'worship' actually should be; it is to be understood in terms of the proper attitude to a loving earthly Father - this provides an essential 'clue'.)

This 'should' in should worship' contains one of those 'Just Is' metaphysical assumptions - that it is (ultimately) a law of ultimate reality to have a certain attitude to the Father.

In this pluralist scheme, we do not owe God our existence in an ultimate sense; but we owe God our existence in the form we are: that is we are Sons of God.

NOT to worship God is an attitude of pride, ingratitude, usurpation, turning-against and opposition etc; as in the history of Satan - and as replicated here on earth in simulacrum.

But in sum, we worship God because he is *by far* (by a degree which is indistinguishable from infinite except that it is not infinite) the most powerful entity in the universe, and He is our Father, and because he Loves us, and because he is Good, and because He shaped and made our raw essence into persons... there are other reasons, but those more than suffice.

Nicholas Fulford said...

You covered "Mind of God" well. I I would add to, "Everything is necessary", and everything is contingent.

The infinite regress problem has some resolution if we look at virtual things, (e.g. a fractal equation.) Something virtual "exists" but is eternal, and only becomes "real" upon instantiation. This allows a multiverse model where every universe expresses an instantiation of a particular set of characteristics. (Think of it in object-oriented programming terms, where the base Class has the characteristic of being virtual and being instantiable, and this is the only Just Is requirement, and every child Class inherits these qualities and the particular characteristics which upon instantiation result in an unfolding universe.) What results is that an instantiated universe unfolds the particular virtual universe. The instantiation is really just a mirror of what is contained or implied by the characteristics of a virtual universe. Consider the Mandelbrot fractal equation. It "contains" all of the views that are possible at any point in the instantiation of it. The equation defines the limits of what is expressible, and hence any point in the instantiated and unfolding is both necessary and contingent.

God as virtual base Class may sound pretty stark, but the ramifications are pretty much as you pointed out. We are intimately bound to it by our necessity and contingency, and all possible states are hence also necessary and contingent.

Also, instantiation can be looked at as expression of the primary existential query, "Who or what am I?"

ajb said...


What do you mean by worship? Worship usually means something like 'an attitude of reverence and awe' or 'reverent honor and homage'.

If something like this is right, then your question becomes "Why should anyone have an attitude of reverence and awe towards God?"

The answer seems to be, because he is Good, Loving, and so on, and all these things to an ultimate (as far as there are things that exist) degree.

Samson J. said...

to Love Him and believe He Loves us - especially given that He is directly responsible for - wills - absolutely everything that happens... well that is not so easy.

You keep saying this sort of thing, Bruce, and I don't usually comment because I think you need to find your own path in life... BUT - I think you are badly wrong, and perhaps more importantly this sort of thing is a real flaw in your worldview and way of thinking.

You mean that YOU find it "not so easy". Well, that is because you are an emotional thinker, it seems to me; likely some kind of "F" on the MBTI. *Your* emotional "problem" with "evil" is not an actual, logical Problem of Evil. It's getting frustrating to see you keep claiming that it is.

MC said...

I've been toying with describing God as "plenipotent" rather than omnipotent. He is not all-powerful, but fully-powerful. In other words, he possesses all the power that a being can possess, but does not literally control or intend every action in the universe.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Your assumptions, in order:
1. Infinite regress… (or other explanations)… all ultimate explanations are paradoxical.
2. The mind of God - God's will, unchanging - yet, somehow, Loves us… for this view, everything is necessary.
3. It Just Is: some things are ultimately caused by God, and other things are not. (Some things are Good, and other things are not…)
4. Forms are real, and lie behind appearances.
5. How do we know about forms… we can assume God plants the necessary knowledge in our own minds (the view of Aristotle and Aquinas).
6. God… does not know in the way a God who is himself everything would know about what went on inside himself.

1. The classical theist (monotheistic) philosophy is not paradoxical, and is harmoniously completed with Christian revelation as taught by the Catholic Church.
2. Mind and will are not the same thing, but will and love are: there is nothing that God or creature wills that is not willed out of love. – Necessity and contingency: Only God is necessary, every other being is contingent and is sustained in existence (creation is continuous) by God’s Love.
3. “Some things are good and other things are not:” Every single being is good in the same measure that it is. What is not good is in fact a want, a subtraction, a hole, caused by imperfection or evildoing in creatures.
4. Forms do not lie behind “appearances.” Except for purely spiritual creatures (angels), forms do not exist separately from “matter.” Matter in the proper sense (Aristotelian prima materia) does not exist separately from form either.
5. “God plants the necessary knowledge in our minds:” not quite. Before the three often named transcendentals, the True, the Good and the Beautiful, there are two most important ones, which are Being and Unity. Being is manifold, various, obviously, and yet, being is also analogously one, since all existents have “being” in common and thus partake in the other transcendentals by the fact, and because, ultimately, God is God and contains everything else in his own unique all-encompassing being. The appetite for good and truth and all the transcendentals are just manifestations of what constitutes our being and is rooted in the being of the One God, which is truth itself, goodness (and love) itself, beauty itself.
6. “…a God who is himself everything:” This sounds like a pantheistic take, and this is not what is advocated by monotheists, either in natural religion or by pagan philosophers who were only externally polytheists, nor with the specific public Judaeo-Christian revelation, nor in the speech of Christ himself: The Father and I are one.

@Nicholas: nothing virtual exists in God's mind. Only for us in time, virtual, possible things can be envisioned, our salvation for example, but of course we never know for sure if they will become real. Since God’s mind is outside of time, things all are, not one more, not one less than he wills, or allows free agents to do until the end of time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - I have always said that if this is not a problem for someone then fine - because there are paradoxes about all known metaphysical systems. But this is a matter of logic, not my emotions. If God caused everything, he did all evil. The numerous attempts to argue otherwise are disingenuous or confused - people sometimes almost deliberately attempting to confuse themselves by piling on further hypotheses, or simply losing track of their arguments. But the real situation is crystal clear. The get-out clause about everything being for the good but incomprehensible is unacceptable to Christians since it leaves Man utterly unable to judge for himself over anything at all; and in a position where there is nothing to do but submit to the will of God, which must appear arbitrary. Yet this would not be Christian but the other major monotheism. This just is where that metaphysics takes you. Wise Christians have always refused to go along with the metaphysics but sometimes they do follow it, and this has led to some monstrous deformities in the history of Christianity. One way or another, all good Christians *will*, and necessarily, chuck-out this metaphysics before they follow through to the implications. This chucking-out can be done openly or covertly - but either way the metaphysics is *in fact* being chucked. The problem of the unacceptable, anti-Christian, implications of classical metaphysics is being avoided, but it is not being solved.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - That sounds a formulation which I could subscribe to - but it seems that many Christian intellectuals are absolutely committed to the idea of God as unlimited in any way - and any attempt to discuss God's limits is interpreted as a human attempt to limit God - and therefore as the most profound blasphemy.

Wm Jas said...

MC, the Mormon writer Robert L. Millet expresses a similar idea thus: "There is no knowledge of which [God] is ignorant and no power which he does not possess." source). In other words, God knows and can do everything that can be known or done -- but not necessarily everything we can imagine.

MC said...


Thanks for the reference, I'll look into it.