Sunday, May 8, 2011

Are you for real?

In a recent post, I gave as an example of an obviously wrongheaded conception of God’s relationship to the world the idea that we are literally fictional characters in a story He has authored – though I also allowed that as a mere analogy the idea may have its uses.  Vincent Torley wonders whether there might not be something more to the idea, though, citing the use Hugh McCann makes of it in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Divine Providence” (see especially section 6 of the article).

So, let's examine the idea.  Torley writes:

One obvious objection to McCann's "storybook" analogy is that we are real, but the characters in a story are not.  But what does "real" mean here?  The characters in a story are real to each other; while the author exists at another, higher level of reality.  We can make stories, but it is certainly conceivable that we ourselves are characters in a story written by God, who, as the Ultimate Reality, exists in a level of reality beyond our own.

Another objection to McCann's "storybook" metaphor is that the characters in a story do not interact with their author, as we do when we pray to God.  However, there seems to be no logical reason why an author of a book could not write a story in which the characters interacted with him or her.  I believe some computer games already incorporate this feature…

Now it seems to me from the passage Torley cites that McCann himself does not take the view that we are really just fictional characters; he appeals to the notion only as an analogy useful for helping us to understand why divine causality is not incompatible with human freedom.  The idea is that God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story.  Hence to say that God is the ultimate source of all causality is not like saying that He is comparable to a hypnotist in a story who brainwashes people to do his bidding, or a mad scientist who controls them via some electronic device implanted in their brains.  He is more like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way.  And so His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.

In fact this is precisely the sort of thing for which I think the analogy is useful.  It is also useful as a way of illustrating the difference between the classical theist’s conception of God and other conceptions.  Just as the author of a story is not one character among others but transcends the story altogether as its source, so too the God of classical theism is not “a being” among others but Being Itself.  (As Ralph McInerny put it in the title of one of his books, we are like “characters in search of their Author.”)

All the same, the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters (comparable, say, to the protagonists of the famous Twilight Zone episode "Five Characters In Search of An Exit").  There are at least two problems with the idea that we are, one philosophical and one theological.  The philosophical problem is that there is an obvious difference between us and fictional characters: we exist and they don’t.  Metaphysically speaking, we can understand the difference in terms of Aquinas’s famous distinction between essence and existence.  To borrow an example from his On Being and Essence, a phoenix, unlike a human being, has no “act of existence” conjoined with its essence (if there is such a thing as the essence of a phoenix).  That’s why there are no phoenixes – they are fictional creatures – while there are human beings.  You exist because God conjoins your essence to an act of existence; phoenixes do not exist because God does not conjoin the essence of any phoenix with an act of existence.  To regard ourselves as fictional characters in a story God has written would be to deny this obvious difference, and to make it mysterious what it could mean to say that God has created human beings but not phoenixes.  (See Aquinas for discussion and defense of Aquinas’s doctrine of essence and existence.)

But what of Torley’s suggestion that “the characters in a story are real to each other; while the author exists at another, higher level of reality,” and that this is comparable to our relationship to God as a divine Author?  The answer is that while both we and God are real – we have acts of existence conjoined with our essences and God just is Being Itself – the characters in a story are not real at all precisely because (being merely fictional) none of them has an act of existence conjoined with an essence.  When we say that “they are real to each other,” all this can mean is that the author has written the story in such a way that the characters say the sorts of things to each other that normal human beings would, and do not say things like “We are mere fictional characters.”  For the same reason, the characters in a story do not literally “interact” with the author (contrary to Torley’s suggestion) for the simple reason that they do not exist and thus cannot interact with anything.  Rather, an author may write a story in such a way that some of the characters’ dialogue makes reference to the author himself.

You might say that precisely because the characters do not exist but are purely fictional, they are not true causes the way real things are.  Everything they seem to do is really done by their author: We say that Spider-Man punched out the guy who shot his uncle, but all that happened in the real world is that Steve Ditko (in collaboration with writer Stan Lee) first drew a panel in which Spider-Man punches the guy and then drew a panel in which the guy is unconscious.  Strictly speaking, Spider-Man didn’t do anything, because there is no Spider-Man.  By contrast, when we think we bring about effects, we (usually) really do.  Of course, God, as the First Cause of the world, is the source of all the causal power anything else has, and apart from Him nothing in the world could generate any effect even for an instant.  (This is the thrust of the Aristotelian-Thomistic argument from motion.)  But (from a Thomistic point of view, anyway) created things are nevertheless true causes, even if only “secondary causes.”  Their causal power is entirely derived from God, but it is still real.  To say that we are fictional characters would, it seems, be implicitly to deny this, and to adopt the occasionalist view that there are no secondary causes and that God is the only true cause of anything.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on occasionalism notes, “Nicolas Malebranche developed Occasionalism to its uttermost limit, approaching so near to Pantheism that he himself remarked that the difference between himself and Spinoza was that he taught that the universe was in God and that Spinoza said that God was in the universe.”  And something similar could be said of the suggestion that we are fictional characters: If we and everything else in the universe are, in effect, mere ideas in the mind of a divine Author, then the distinction between God and the world collapses.  The universe would be “in” God in the same way that the story an author has come up with is “in” the author’s mind.  But pantheism is unacceptable both from the point of view of philosophical theology (since the traditional arguments for God’s existence entail that the First Cause is utterly distinct from the world) and from the point of view of dogmatic theology (since pantheism is unorthodox).  Hence any view that entails pantheism – as the suggestion that we are fictional characters arguably does – is doubly objectionable.  And in this case, pretty odd in any event!

24 comments:

Bilbo said...

Prof. Feser,

If you've ever seriously tried to write a story, you may have noticed that the characters take on a "reality" of their own. You may start out with the story going in one direction, but because of the personalities of the fictional characters, it "must" go in a different direction entirely, unless you want to write a very bad story.

So, yes, there is a way that fictional characters become, in some sense, "real."

And I don't think we could call it Pantheism. Unless I'm mistaken, in Pantheism usually God is unaware of the thoughts in His mind. An author is never unaware of the fictional characters he creates.

I think you need to rethink your objection.

Will said...

Everything is real. The question is, a real what? Spider-Man is a real comic-book hero, but not a real New York resident.

But then we might have levels of reality. For example, I write a novel _The Fictional Murderer_ in which the detective, Joe, is a writer of mysteries. (Familiar, I know.) Joe wrote his thriller _Murder in Oceania_, and the killer in _The Fictional Murderer_ took his inspiration from that novel and committed a copycat crime. So to Winston, _Murder in Oceania_ is fiction, but _The Fictional Murderer_ is reality. To me, they're both fiction.

Then things get strange. Winston's a conventional mystery writer even if he is too interested in Orwell (hence his book's title), but I'm into magic realism, so Winston finds things that can't be: events are out of order, things that happen in Winston's novel actually happen in his life after the novel is written, Winston notices the number 1984 popping up everywhere he goes (like the lotto numbers in the TV series _Lost_), and then we find that 2+2 really does equal 5, thereby echoing 1984's tortures. And Winston's ultimate solution to the mystery changes from time to time; the murderer is sometimes an east Asian and sometimes a Eurasian, not because I screwed up, but because I think it's fine social commentary.

So I can think of these ways we can distinguish our world from the fictional ones:
* Ours doesn't have these inconsistencies in it. The inconsistencies aren't the result of author incompetence; I put them there for good reason. So an omnicompetent Author is no fix for them.
* We don't skip over large chunks of time in which nothing interesting is happening; we have to sit through them.

OTOH maybe we just think we do. So to think we *are* fictional characters requires that we disbelieve our senses: like fictional characters, we don't notice things going wrong, we don't notice skipping over the boring parts. Or else God is so rigorous that our world is as consistent as if it were really there. Which echoes the idea of God planting fossils to trick humans into thinking the earth is old: a God of deceptive practice.

Certainly an interesting topic. If to God we are fictional characters, what is God to us? There's a dose of humility in that analogy.

Mark Duch said...

Bilbo,

What you've said really amounts to this: all fictional characters have fictional personalities and fictional back stories, created by the author, which may influence the author to restrict the fictional behavior and fictional future stories of the character.

This doesn't mean any part of the fictional characters is real. It only means that the author is real. The author's own past behavior (creating the fictional character, which by definition has limitations) is influencing the author's future behavior (developing the character within those limitations). The need for a good story is only internal to the author and a prerequisite for the author making money. There is no inherent impossibility in the idea of making a bad story. One can write nonsense if one chooses to. See, e.g., your own comment.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for a very interesting post. Shakespeare once wrote that "All the world's a stage, And we are merely the players." That's what I mean when I suggest that we might be characters in a story written by God. If we are, then creation ex nihilo is no longer a problem. (I may be completely wrong, of course.) Notice that I say "characters," not "fictional characters." Personally, I'm inclined to think that the individuals in a story written by God would possess genuine existence, if they were specified and individualized in exhaustive detail, with natures that were fully defined in relation to one another and to God. By exhaustive detail, I mean that there would be no meaningful but unanswered questions about these individuals. What color is the house next door to Harry Potter's? We don't know, because J. K. Rowling didn't tell us in her novels. But in God's story, everything is specified down to the last detail.

You object that if this proposal were correct, phoenixes should exist too. Not so. First, a phoenix is the name of a kind of thing, not an individual. God would have to write a story in which there were individual phoenixes, to make them exist, and they would have to be fully specified. Second, a phoenix is not a genuine kind anyway, as the definition of a phoenix is not a proper definition. A phoenix's "whatness" is defined purely notionally ("bird that lives in Arabia for 500 years"), in terms of its proper accidents rather than its substantial form, and is not properly specified. The definition is too vague. How big is a phoenix? What color is it, and why? What kind of DNA does it have?

I propose that a thing genuinely exists if (i) its nature is completely specified, (ii) the way in which it is capable of relating to other kinds of things is fully specified, (iii) it is an individual, (iv) it is necessarily distinct from all other individuals sharing its nature. The characters in our novels aren't fully specified and properly individualized, so they only exist in a Pickwickian sense.

I should add that whereas Hugh McCann thinks that the characters in a story still possess libertarian freedom if their author completely determines their actions, I disagree. I believe that we, the characters in God's story, are not fully determined in our choices and actions. If we were, God couldn’t justly punish us. Only our natures are fully determined. We possess big-L Libertarian freedom and can oppose God, so we are outside Him. God is passively, timelessly made aware of what we choose, like Boethius' watcher from the high tower. God has however defined the plot constraints so that in the end, His will is done, no matter how we choose.

Finally, I am not an occasionalist but a concurrentist. Are you a concurrentist, Ed? Just curious.

Charles R. Cherry said...

Thanks, again, Professor.

There are precious few blogs that I read which make me smarter by reading them.

Yours is one of the best.

Blessings to you and yours.

Mark Duch said...

I'm no philosopher, but I think the notion that individual fictional characters don't exist in reality only because their nature and relationship to other individual fictional characters are not fully specified is a bit insane. There is nothing I could possibly come to know about Harry Potter that would make him exist. And "knowing" (i.e. making up) the color of a fictional door does not make said door exist. Talking about a story is not the same thing as talking about reality.

It seems as though a "character" is just a naming convention for talking intelligibly about a set of ideas and constraints. That's why we use real life actors or avatars to represent characters and display the characters' "decisions." They are incapable of substantiation on their own, as they only exist in the author's mind. They need an avatar that truly exists to substitute for an instantiation of them.

It is worth noting that no one ever hires Harry Potter to play Harry Potter; by contrast, it is perfectly reasonable to hire Will Farrell to play Will Farrell. It's not a problem of delineation between characters or lack of information. Who would ask, "Which Harry Potter?" or "What exactly do you mean by 'Harry Potter'?" No one. The problem is that of existence. If it were a problem of the character not being well enough defined, it would be impossible for an avatar or actor to play the character.

Vincent Torley said...

Part One of Two:

Mark Duch may be right when he describes the opinions I have defended in my post above (May 9, 2011 8:17 AM) as "a bit insane." But he’s wrong in saying that fictional characters “only exist in the author's mind.” My ideas are “of” or “from” my mind, but not “in” my mind. The whole metaphor of the mind as a “container” of ideas is a false one. The fictional characters that I invent can exist “in” a novel I write, but that novel is of or from my mind, not in it. It is not a part of me. Incidentally, even the term “fictional character” is misleading: it suggests that everything can be divided into real things, which possess existence, and fictional things, which lack it. It’s just not that simple.

What I’m proposing here is that nothing can even conceivably exist unless it is either a mind or the product of a mind. As John McMurray pointed out in “The Self as Agent” and “Persons in Relation”, even the language we use to describe the behavior of matter (e.g. “attraction”) is inescapably mentalistic. Thus the notion of a mind-independent reality makes no sense. God, who is the Uncaused and Unbounded Intelligent Being, exists at the highest level of reality (call it Level 2). The world and all its creatures (including us) are ideas of God: to be precise, creatures are entities in an interactive novel composed by God. These entities exist on Level 1. Their natures and causal relations are fully specified, and they are also suitably individualized in space-time. However, although their natures are fully specified, their actions are not: the intelligent agents in this interactive novel are free to defy their Maker. Finally, the (incompletely specified) Pickwickian characters in the stories that human beings write exist on Level 0. The relation of human authors to their characters is not quite the same as God’s relation to us. While we can write stories whose characters interact with each other and even with their author, our characters lack the autonomy of will (big-L Libertarian freedom) that human beings possess in their relation to God, their Maker. Our characters cannot defy us.

The attraction of this picture, as I see it, is that it dispels a conundrum surrounding creation ex nihilo. Let's try a humorous experiment: imagine a particular (and as-yet non-existent) entity, and try to bring it into existence. You might like to think of a character in a novel - let's say Harry Potter. Or if that's too hard for you, think of something simpler – a perfectly red apple 10 centimeters in front of your face, or a flawless 40-carat blue diamond sitting on your desk. Now, try to make it come into existence. Close your eyes, and think hard. Really think now. Concentrate! You have to wish this entity into existence. Focus with all your might. Maybe if you think hard enough, your wish will come true. Mmmmmmph! The veins in your temples should be bulging now. Now open your eyes and look around you. Did you succeed? No? I thought not. But here's the funny thing: we are supposed to believe that God made you and me and everything else simply by wishing it into existence: "Let there be light." Scripture tells us that "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made; He spoke and it was done." So my question is: if we can't wish things into existence, how come God can? And my very simple answer is that we can wish things into existence, but only in novels of our own creation, on Level 0. The world, which is on Level 1, is God’s novel; the things in our world are products of His mind, not ours.

Alternative explanations of why we are incapable of creating things ex nihilo are unconvincing. To be continued...

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Is existence a predicate? What would make Harry "with all the attributes of Harry Potter" Potter differ from Harry "with all the attributes of harry potter plus existence" Potter? Presumably, something about God's having actualized the latter but not the former, but then, that rathers deflates the debate about what level of predicate-completeness makes things real. It seems actuality is a proper predicate or the two Harry Potters are identical. Murky topics.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Further, the exhaustion of attributes as the basis of existence is straight out of––or at least plays right into––Malebranche's occasionalism. If God assigns every spatiotemporal attribute of Z, plus all its intrinsic and extrinsic relations, then what could Z possibly contribute to its own constitution, much less the alteration of the world?

Anonymous said...

I'm so confused.
i really want to understand this stuff. But what does "existence as a predicate" mean?

Could someone spell it out for me as well as the issue.... as if you were talking to a complete novice?

Mark Duch said...

Anonymous @ 9;59 a.m.:

I understand the word "predicate" to be interchangeable, for these purposes, with the word "property," such that we (following Kant) may say that "Existence is not a predicate," meaning that "Existence is not a property of a thing." All this means is that to say that "Thing X exists" is not the same as saying that "Thing X is blue." Kant was big on the idea, as I understand it, that for a thing to have properties in the first place, it must exist. So existence is not a property, but presupposed. Kant's position is by no means universally accepted.

Anonymous said...

Thank you soooo much for the explanation.
That really makes sense.

Billy Blue Boots said...

Kant was big on the idea, as I understand it, that for a thing to have properties in the first place, it must exist. So existence is not a property, but presupposed. Kant's position is by no means universally accepted.

Interesting.

The issue I would have with Kant's comment about existence not being a property for those reasons is:
what about color? Say we have a piece of glass that is perfectly clear (with respects to having any added color) - using Kant's position couldn't someone say "light blue isn't a property because the glass has no color to begin with"?.
It's not lacking the property of "light blue" because "color" should be presupposed in order for it to appear "light blue".

Vincent Torley said...

I disagree with Mark Duch’s claim fictional characters “only exist in the author's mind.” My ideas are “of” or “from” my mind, but not “in” my mind. The whole metaphor of the mind as a “container” of ideas is a false one. The fictional characters that I invent can exist “in” a novel I write, but that novel is of or from my mind, not in it. It is not a part of me. Moreover, the very term “fictional character” is misleading: it suggests that everything can be divided into real things, which possess existence, and fictional things, which lack it. It’s not that simple.

What I’m proposing here is that nothing can even conceivably exist unless it is either a mind or the product of a mind. As John McMurray pointed out in “The Self as Agent” and “Persons in Relation”, even the language we use to describe the behavior of matter (e.g. “attraction”) is inescapably mentalistic. Thus the notion of a mind-independent reality makes no sense. God, who is the Uncaused and Unbounded Intelligent Being, exists at the highest level of reality (call it Level 2). The world and all its creatures (including us) are ideas of God: to be precise, creatures are entities in an interactive novel composed by God. These entities exist on Level 1. Their natures and causal relations are fully specified, and they are also suitably individualized in space-time. However, although their natures are fully specified, their actions are not: the intelligent agents in this interactive novel are free to defy their Maker. Finally, the (incompletely specified) Pickwickian characters in the stories that human beings write exist on Level 0. The relation of human authors to their characters is not quite the same as God’s relation to us. While we can write stories whose characters interact with each other and even with their author, our characters lack the autonomy of will (big-L Libertarian freedom) that human beings possess in their relation to God, their Maker. Our characters cannot defy us.

The attraction of this picture, as I see it, is that it dispels a conundrum surrounding creation ex nihilo. Let's try a humorous experiment: imagine a particular (and as-yet non-existent) entity – say, a flawless 40-carat blue diamond sitting on your desk – and try to wish it into existence. Close your eyes, and think hard. Concentrate! Now open your eyes. Did you succeed? No. But here's the funny thing: God made you and me and everything else simply by wishing it into existence: "Let there be light." So my question is: if we can't wish things into existence, how come God can? And my very simple answer is that we can wish things into existence, but only in novels of our own creation, on Level 0. The world, which is on Level 1, is God’s novel; the things in our world are products of His mind, not ours.

Some philosophers say that only God, who is Pure Being, can impart being to an essence. But just as a magnetized object (e.g. an iron nail) can be used to pick up other magnetic objects (e.g. a paper clip), a creature like me who participates in God's Being should be able to impart small-b being to something that I wish to create ex nihilo, so long as I'm "plugged into" God. But I can’t.

Or perhaps God can wish things into existence because only He is infinitely powerful? Perhaps our wishes are only 10-amp wishes, but God's are infinity-amp wishes, which alone can bring a non-existent thing into being? But the problem here is not the strength of the wishes; it’s the fact that wishing, per se, accomplishes nothing in a world which is independent of you. It can only make something happen in a world which vitally depends on you. And the only world which vitally depends on its Maker is one which is an intellectual product of its Maker – i.e. a story. I can only create things within the stories I compose; and God can only create things within His Big Story: the cosmos.

Bilbo said...

Mark: "The need for a good story is only internal to the author and a prerequisite for the author making money. There is no inherent impossibility in the idea of making a bad story."

Do you think God is capable of writing a bad story?

"One can write nonsense if one chooses to. See, e.g., your own comment."

Yes, it's possible that I wrote nonsense, but I wasn't trying to write nonsense. Do you think God is capable of creating nonsense?

Mark Duch said...

Vincent: stories are words. Characters are part of a story. Characters are words. Yes, the words represent things thy may or may not exist, but if those things do exist, their existence is in no way dependent upon the story. This is true even once the story leaves the author's mind and enters that of the reader. And given the imperfection of communication the character in the author's mind may not even match the character in the reader's mind. All that exists are the words and the thoughts people have and the the things people say about them. You're thinking too hard

Mark Duch said...

Bilbo: the existence of any nonsense in the world would prove that He can, if Vincent is correct that we are all just character's in God's story. But I'm not quite sure if that's what you're getting at.

Bilbo said...

Hi Mark,

Would God be creating the nonsense or would the characters be creating the nonsense?

Mark Duch said...

Bilbo,

Under Torley's scenario, it would be God. Characters do what their authors tell them to do. The whole idea smacks of a denial of free will to me.

Mark

Vincent Torley said...

Mark

Just to be clear on one point: as I envisage it, the story written by God is an open-ended one. God has not written the plot; only the first and final chapters and the characters (starting with Adam and Eve).

I believe in big-L libertarian free will as firmly as you do, and I'm much surer about that than I am of my "storybook" account of the cosmos.

Mark Duch said...

Vincent,

Looking back over my posts, perhaps I've been too short or dismissive and so I apologize if I've shown less kindness in my criticisms than I would want to receive in return. I've been trying to say that your storybook account doesn't allow for the characters to make the rest of the story at all. In your philosophical scenario, if God's story fully defines a character's nature and its relationship to other characters, then the character exists. I'm saying that under that scenario, a character could never have free will, so the scenario could never apply to us. Let's hop over to Genesis, because I think its theology is illuminating.

For things like rocks and trees, God said "Let there be" and "Let it be separated from" and "let it be called", and it was so. There is not a lot of separation between God saying or defining trees and them coming into being. Not so with human beings--who would be the "characters" in your scenario. In Genesis, God does not speak humans into existence by defining them or using any "let it be" pronouncements. Instead, he "formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being." Then he formed woman from the rib of the already existing man. Something different than speaking/defining happened in order for man to exist, and I say necessarily so:

If God defines absolutely everything about a thing and its relationships to other things--in other words, if He simply says, “let there be” and “let it be separate from,” then it is impossible for that thing to have a free will. For a rock or tree, this is fine, for what will does a rock or tree have? But, as I know you accept, humans do have free will. Because God "breathed life into us," we have wills of our own, as God has a will (though to a lesser degree). We are able to create of our own initiative, as God creates (to a lesser degree). We are capable of meaningful relationships, a sharing in the way that God exists in relationship (to a lesser degree). If all it took for man to exist, was for God to define humanity's nature and its relationship to other beings, we should expect to be no more than rocks and trees. Genesis is trying to tell us that we are more than something that exists merely because it has had all of its properties completely defined and its relationship to other things defined. We are more than characters in a story. God refrained from using a part of his will (from defining us as characters) so that we would be able to exercise our own will (to write our own stories).

I believe your storybook scenario turns Christian theology and its philosophical underpinnings upside down, and reduces humanity to the status of rocks and trees. I think by using the image of God of employing his "breath" instead of his "words," to create man, Genesis is telling us that God refused to define everything about us and everything about our relationship to other creatures, precisely so that he might have relationship with us. For a being to have free will, it is precisely because "who he is" and "how he relates to others" is not strictly defined by another. To have free will is to be like (shall we say, made in the image of) God. To exercise it properly is to participate in the divine life. This is why we are called to respect the dignity, freedom and right to life of others. We are, to some extent, called to refrain from exercising our will where it would destroy the free will of another so that the other may create their own story, and thus be more like God. Thus, to refrain from trying to completely define every aspect of another’s life is to be like God. Because God has made us in his image, we are not characters. We are authors.

Mark Duch

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Mark,

Your latest comment (which was very eloquently written, I might add) seems to have disappeared into the void - hopefully it'll re-appear - but I'd just like to respond briefly.

I completely affirm libertarian free-will as you do. I had originally proposed that God had "left the story open," so to speak, allowing the characters (human beings) to write it themselves - except for the beginning and the ending. But upon reflection I think that you made a sound point when you argued that the very act of creating a character, as such, precludes libertarian freedom on the character's part. Which leaves us with the question: how, then, does God create the rational souls of free agents like us?

One could say that He loves us into existence. That's about the best theological answer, it seems, but of course it's open to the objection that you can't love what doesn't yet exist. Perhaps a more accurate answer would be to say that just as we can't see the back of our heads, so too we are incapable of fathoming the Divine act which brought us into existence as free persons. All we can say is that the act was done lovingly.

Wesley (rightly, I think) regarded love as God's central and defining attribute. Perhaps what distinguishes Divine love from ours is simply the fact that God's love is inherently generative of persons, while ours can only be directed at existing persons.

Mark Duch said...

Hi Vincent, thank you for your reply. I am not sure what happened to my post to which you just responded, and I am out of town away from the computer on which I composed it. I did compose it in Word because it was quite lengthy and I was afraid the comment box would delete it if I typed in the word-verification-puzzle incorrectly. I'll see if I can find it when I return home on Sunday for others' benefit.

For now, and taking your most recent comment a bit further, I wonder if there is more similarity in the way we love and the way God loves than your comment allows. You wondered whether perhaps what distinguishes Divine love from ours is simply the fact that God's love is inherently generative of persons, while ours can only be directed at existing persons.

I might propose that love between a husband and wife is necessarily procreative-that it is inherently generative of persons. As Christians, we are called to love our spouses as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her. Well, long before he died for us, he was love. So there is something about love that is enough of a catalyst or attribute to create us. As a Catholic, I believe that love between spouses should be the type of love that gives absolutely everything and holds no part of the self back, including in sexual relations. Subject to God's will, and barring any impediments, whether artificially imposed by the spouses, or naturally occurring defects, we can (as Catholics) say that spousal love produces persons. We might say that a love between spouses that is totally giving in the bedroom (not diminishing the importance of other expressions of love) is a sharing in the same type of love as God's love. That is, it is inherently generative of persons.

What do you think?

Best,

Mark Duch

Mark Duch said...

My comment to which Vincent Torley's last reply was directed:


Vincent,

Looking back over my posts, perhaps I've been too short or dismissive and so I apologize if I've shown less kindness in my criticisms than I would want to receive in return. I've been trying to say that your storybook account doesn't allow for the characters to make the rest of the story at all. In your philosophical scenario, if God's story fully defines a character's nature and its relationship to other characters, then the character exists. I'm saying that under that scenario, a character could never have free will, so the scenario could never apply to us. Let's hop over to Genesis, because I think its theology is illuminating.

For things like rocks and trees, God said "Let there be" and "Let it be separated from" and "let it be called", and it was so. There is not a lot of separation between God saying or defining trees and them coming into being. Not so with human beings--who would be the "characters" in your scenario. In Genesis, God does not speak humans into existence by defining them or using any "let it be" pronouncements. Instead, he "formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being." Then he formed woman from the rib of the already existing man. Something different than speaking/defining happened in order for man to exist, and I say necessarily so:

If God defines absolutely everything about a thing and its relationships to other things--in other words, if He simply says, “let there be” and “let it be separate from,” then it is impossible for that thing to have a free will. For a rock or tree, this is fine, for what will does a rock or tree have? But, as I know you accept, humans do have free will. Because God "breathed life into us," we have wills of our own, as God has a will (though to a lesser degree). We are able to create of our own initiative, as God creates (to a lesser degree). We are capable of meaningful relationships, a sharing in the way that God exists in relationship (to a lesser degree). If all it took for man to exist, was for God to define humanity's nature and its relationship to other beings, we should expect to be no more than rocks and trees. Genesis is trying to tell us that we are more than something that exists merely because it has had all of its properties completely defined and its relationship to other things defined. We are more than characters in a story. God refrained from using a part of his will (from defining us as characters) so that we would be able to exercise our own will (to write our own stories).

I believe your storybook scenario turns Christian theology and its philosophical underpinnings upside down, and reduces humanity to the status of rocks and trees. I think by using the image of God of employing his "breath" instead of his "words," to create man, Genesis is telling us that God refused to define everything about us and everything about our relationship to other creatures, precisely so that he might have relationship with us. For a being to have free will, it is precisely because "who he is" and "how he relates to others" is not strictly defined by another. To have free will is to be like (shall we say, made in the image of) God. To exercise it properly is to participate in the divine life. This is why we are called to respect the dignity, freedom and right to life of others. We are, to some extent, called to refrain from exercising our will where it would destroy the free will of another so that the other may create their own story, and thus be more like God. Thus, to refrain from trying to completely define every aspect of another’s life is to be like God. Because God has made us in his image, we are not characters. We are authors.

Mark Duch